Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Strange Baseball - The Curse of the Spider

I am an intermittent participant in a Trivia Night at our local watering hole.  We do reasonably well particularly when we play under my preferred team name The Cleveland Spiders.  It is only fitting after all that a Trivia Team play with a name that is an answer to a trivia question.

The question being:

Name the Worst Major League Baseball team in history.

Ah, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.  Those of us whose stars lead us to root for a team with mixed fortunes can always find solace the the fact that, no matter what, our team simply can't be that bad.

It really need not have been so.  In the mid 1890's the Cleveland Spiders were a championship team, or at least a serious contender.

But their owners, a much reviled pair of brothers named Robison, went out and bought a second team in St. Louis.  They then proceeded to strip the Spiders of all available talent including the immortal Cy Young.  St. Louis was going to contend.  Cleveland would be a back water, a side show.

This is not a recipe for success.  The Spiders went on to a dismal record of 20-134 for a winning percentage of .130.  Fans could not be expected to endure much of that, so attendance at home games was almost zero.  Other clubs refused to come to Cleveland, so home games were cancelled and the Spiders began to play almost entirely on the road.  They were 11-102 in away games, a record that can never be approached, given the current 162 game schedule and equal split between home and away games.

They finished 84 games out of first place.  The lost 40 of their last 41 games.

Remarkably they were so desperate that in their final game of the wretched season they sent to the mound a certain Eddie Kolb, a 19 year old clerk in the cigar shop at the Spiders' hotel.  Eddie seems to have volunteered the night before on a lark, but actually did not end up with the worst ERA on the staff of the hapless Spiders.

Although the team's official name was Spiders, the merciless press corps gave them any number of unofficial monikers that year:

Misfits, Exiles, Discards, Remnants, Outcasts, Cast Adrifts, Wandering Willies, Tramps, Caudal Appendages, Homeless Ones...

Ah well, my misgivings about off season trades notwithstanding my beloved Minnesota Twins will be a resounding success in comparison.

An odd side note.  I thought it would be interesting to see if you could buy a repro hat from the Cleveland Spiders.  Well, sure you can.  Right here.

But in the process of looking around I was shocked to learn that there is, or at least recently was, another Cleveland Spiders team.

They hail from the small Minnesota town of Cleveland.  It is in the same general region that my family hearkens from.  Indeed, they play against a team from my dad's home town.

The most recent information that I can find indicates that the little community of Cleveland actually had two baseball teams in the local amateur league.  Well, did that work out any better than it did in 1899?

It appears that midway through the 2012 season the Cleveland (Minnesota) Spiders were 1-12 with a winning percentage of .077!

I have not been able to determine so far whether it was an undertaking either conceived of, or carried out in, a sober fashion, but I shall be keeping an eye on the upcoming 2013 season with a mind to heading over to cheer for the modern Misfits.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Strange Baseball - Weihsien Internment Camp

Spring training games have started, so let's have a seasonally appropriate week of Strange Baseball History.  First up,  I offer the story of baseball as played at the Weihsien Internment Camp during World War Two.

By way of background...

At the beginning of the Pacific War the Japanese rounded up all civilians in China who held Allied citizenship.  The degree of confinement was loose at first but eventually most were sent to internment camps.  Although the conditions in these camps were exponentially better than those endured by Allied POWs, there were still the cramped quarters, boredom and poor rations common to wartime captivity.

The story of Weihsien was told marvelously by a young American named Langdon Gilkey in his very worthwhile book  Shantung Compound.  Information on "baseball" as played in the camp comes from that source with many additional tidbits from another delightful source Weihsien, which contains the stories recalled by the many children of the camp, now grown to thoughtful maturity.

Weihsien Internment camp was within the walled confines of a former Protestant mission.

It was not a very large place in which to confine 1500 to 2000 men, women and children, but it was at least a rather versatile facility with a hospital, school buildings and dormatories left over from its prewar life.  And down in one cramped corner was a ball field.  Former internees debate the exact dimensions of it, but it is fair to say it was more softball than base ball sized.  No doubt it would have been built over by additional housing were it not also used for the daily roll call counts.

Prisoners always devote most of their attention to their greatest concerns....their future and their next meal.  So memories of lesser things such as baseball games tend to be fragmentary, especially in the case of those who were children at the time.

It is recalled that:

There were adult teams based in part on where the internees came from.  The Tientsen Tigers, the Peking Panthers, and most capable of all a team variously called the Padres or Fathers.  The latter of course was made up of Catholic priests, led by a remarkable man named Valerian Schott, said to be the fastest "thinker, thrower and runner in camp" despite being short, stocky and good natured.

Early on players coming from another smaller interment center had to adapt on arrival at Weihsien.  Apparently in their previous compound the dimensions of the field were so constrained and geometrically odd that they were all required to bat left handed to keep from losing all the balls over an outfield wall.  And unlike most ball yards, a wall with armed guards.

There is brief mention of a casual game between an internee All Star team and the Japanese guards.  Despite using a "Japanese rubber ball" for the contest the Westerners won handily.

There were also teams for children and young people.  Girls were taught softball by a Nazarene missionary named Mary Scott.  Evidently she was a former "tom boy" from an Indiana farm family.  She was in fact good enough that she would occasionally sub in for the men's teams.

In the back woods of rural China news traveled slowly.  So it came as a considerable surprise when on 16 August, 1945, a plane appeared in the sky above the compound.  It was an American B-24 flying low.  From it came seven parachutes.  The internees en masse simply rushed out the front gate past the perplexed but fortunately hesitant guards.  A team of Army paratroopers had descended from on high like minor gods.

The officer in charge strode up to the Japanese commander and announced that the management of the camp had just changed.  Nobody quite knew how this would turn out, as it was exactly one day after the Japanese Emperor had issued his "Imperial Rescript" asking his people to accept surrender.  But cool heads prevailed and freedom arrived at Weihsien suddenly and without bloodshed.

The baseball diamond saw some interesting events in the days that followed.  On August 20th there was a gala Victory dance held there with the back stop decorated with E. A. and V. standing for England, America and Victory.

On 23 August there was a special game held between English and American teams.

On August 26 the original liberators of the camp were replaced by a somewhat bedraggled bunch of regular army types.  It was quite the let down, and by now the internees were in a sullen mood, understandably ready to leave for home.

It fell to an Army captain, given the grace of a pseudonym by Landon Gilkey, to be the Morale Officer who tried to cheer the internees up.  Among his various failures to do so was an event without parallel in the annals of warfare and of baseball.

Since liberation the camp had been receiving regular airdrops of food and medical supplies.  Now idled B-29 bombers from Saipan would swoop in low and drop containers in a nearby field.  Sometimes the parachutes worked, sometimes not. The men of the camp would be close by waiting, this being a necessary but hazardous had to be quick or Chinese peasants would grab as much as they could.

I shall let Langdon Gilkey tell the tale:

"Once the none too bright captain in charge of our morale, Captain Spofford-who will be described later-had, in preparation for a children's party, spread a yellow parachute over the backstop of the soft ball diamond.  It was on this open space that all the women and children of the camp used to gather to watch breathlessly the "drops on daddy" as one child put it.  Evidently the pilot of a B-29 took this yellow marker to be the drop signal, and let go with a large load right on the target.  To the horror of those of us looking on helplessly from the fields, we saw twenty or so cases crash among the terrified mothers and children and ten more go singing through the roofs of several rooms.
Again, by some astounding miracle, no one was injured."

I suspect that a little research would uncover the true name of "Captain Spofford".  He really deserves recognition.  He did after all, accidentally call in the only airstrike in history directed against a baseball diamond.  And a friendly one at that!

An image of Weihsien taken from one of the B-29 supply planes.  Map of camp is super imposed.  Ball field in upper left corner.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Tech Review - I shop for a Travel Computer

If all goes well there should be some interesting travels ahead in 2013 and 2014.

Since this is the modern age I have started traveling with a computer, which is a help in many ways.  I can stay in touch with home, research local sights, get translations and maps.  But my existing laptop has not proven to be ideal.  It weighs in at a little over five pounds, closer to six when you add a case and a charger.  And it is a bit bulky for someone who is an admitted fanatic in regards to packing light and tight.  No matter the length of the trip I will not check a bag, at least on the outbound leg.  (I have less concerns about my stuff going astray when I am safely home, and have even been known to purchase a few trinkets to bring back).

So I was in the market for a travel computer.

The basic parameters were of course:  light, trouble free, wifi, able to store and manipulate photos, skype.  Oh, and I need a real keyboard.  I have tried to use an iPad and I just can't do it.  When you learn to type on a hulking 1970's IBM Selectric typewriter you tend to hit the keys with authority.  Touch screens do not take kindly to that treatment.

I thought I had a winner with this guy:

It is an Acer Aspire One, specifically a 725-0845 model.  Cute.  2.5 pounds.  On paper it has an abundance of memory and storage space.  And it was a bargain.

But it had a fatal flaw.  Windows 8.

Windows 8, if you have not yet had the displeasure of making its acquaintance, is the Microsoft attempt at creating an iPad.  It is designed for a touch screen, which the above does not have.  It is designed for computers specifically set up for it, which this was not. It is also designed to have as many possible varieties of extraneous bells and whistles - all of them ultimately directing business to Microsoft and their pals.  The race was on to delete as much "bloatware" as possible before all the automatic updates choked the processing speed down to the "escargot" level.

I lost.  The priority should always be to put antiviral protection on first. Especially if you are going to start downloading all the actually useful things this computer lacked.  But by the time I had my two reliable programs installed the computer had already autonomously loaded on other things and updated itself several times.  It went slower, and slower, and finally stopped. Reading various anguished reviews I am not alone in this experience.

I will say a few positive things.  Acer is a fine company and this is not an exemplar of their entire product line.  The folks at Target were great, both with the purchase and the return. And the process by which the little bugger throttled itself with a poorly considered and indigestible batch of updates only took a short while, well within the 30 day full refund window.

If you have to buy anything similar to this I understand that there is a function which allows you to remove Windows 8 and revert to the old reliable Windows 7.  Do it.  Fast.

So I am back in the market.  I would like to get something in the next few weeks, allowing a good month of field trials before heading overseas.  I am thinking about a tablet with a docking station/real keyboard.  If anyone has any comments on this:


I would be glad to hear from you.

It costs a little more but still in the budget.

I forgot to mention a couple of my other travel computer parameters.  It should not cost more than my bar tab at the Twice Brewed Inn for my two weeks of digging holiday*.  And it should not be so precious that I would cry if someday a camel steps on it.

*Creating equivalency between my toys budget and my bar tab would seem to be, as my Scottish friends would put it, "a hard bit of graft".  But I am prepared to do what it takes. Shop sales, buy a few extra rounds. And I always leave a little extra for the pub staff, so I think I can pull it off.

The Robot Dragster Project - a brief hiatus

If you were looking for the conclusion of the Robot Dragster Project, my apologies.  There have been a few logistics glitches.

Starting with the unfortunate crash that broke it in half during testing!

We were scheduled to have one more session for repairing the battle damage, with an intended outdoor speed trial the next day.

Instead we got an ice storm and school cancellation.  We lost one build session.  And as to taking this out on the street for testing, well, the kids can't even control it on carpeted floor yet.  Ice covered streets would be.....interesting.

So, we are going to have to sneak in an impromptu session somewhere just prior to the kids going on Spring break.  The dragster will then sit parked until we get a nice day in March for an on street test.

I will post a report then, complete with Top Speed attained and a summation of the things I have learned from this project.

That list will not be short.....

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Editing our Icons

Like a lot of folks I no longer get a daily newspaper.  Hey, I tried but they kept raising the price and eventually stopped week day delivery to my semi-rustic homestead.  But I get the Sunday version once in a while.

I look at the Sunday comics out of very old habit.  There are even a few that retain a bit of entertainment value as their panel size continues to contract.  But what caught my eye the other day was a rather "senior" comic that still runs long after its revered creator has passed on.

Something seemed....wrong.  Can you catch it on first glance?

Snoopy was an iconic character when I was growing up.  He was much more interesting than his owner Charlie Brown.  Like all great creations he grew far beyond his original role, and provided much of the whimsy and philosophy for which Peanuts is rightly and fondly remembered.

Somebody appears to be messing with Snoopy.

Of course the picture should look like this:

In a stunning display of Political Correctness the bullet holes have just been photoshopped away.  Evidently the Red Baron shot him down with harsh words.

This is dishonesty on so many levels.  It trivializes an important debate, that which seeks a balance between public safety and Constitutional rights.  It totally ignores the fact that Snoopy's flights of fancy were just that, imaginary expeditions where he could be heroic. This from a society where the default activity of many young people is video shooting zombies and storm troopers.  And finally, I will just say it, Peanuts in its prime was art.  When you start messing with art who knows where it will stop.  All those Renaissance crucifixion paintings.....will we start airbrushing the wounds in His hands and side?

Ah, what would Charles Schultz have said about this?  In later years he did soften the Snoopy as World  War One Ace routine.  Less gunfire, more wandering about behind the lines sipping root beer with a French version of The Little Red Headed Girl.  But on his death he left firm instructions that the characters were not to be expanded upon.  No "reboots".  He wanted the Peanuts gang to stay as he imagined them.

I suppose the next logical extension of this sort of revisionism can be predicted.  Really now, isn't Lucy always pulling away the football just another form of bullying?

I will give the last word to Mr. Schultz:

Schulz was asked if, for his final Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown would finally get to kick that football after so many decades. His response: "Oh, no! Definitely not! I couldn't have Charlie Brown kick that football; that would be a terrible disservice to him after nearly half a century

Monday, February 18, 2013

Tripping on the Past, Imagining the Future

Note:  The internet makes the world a very small place indeed, and eventually you start running into people who share your interests....even if they are a bit odd.  Take for instance the combined interests of Science Fiction, politics and the Roman Empire.  My - first ever - guest blogger today, Sarah Hoyt, writes prolifically in these areas.  She actually makes a living doing so.
(See link below )  Sarah, you're up!

I’ve been invited to consider how my having grown up in Portugal, with the detritus of empire literally – more or less – underfoot has made my writing science fiction different.

I was about to say it hasn’t, not that much, but it has in a way.

You see, Science Fiction was first explained to me as “History, but turned forward.”  This was the explanation my brother gave me, when – in his first year in Electrical Engineering – he started bringing home these odd books.  (Out of Their Minds is the first SF I remember reading – I’ve determined before that I’d read Have Spacesuit, but I read it UNAWARE that it was science fiction.  I thought that was just how things were in America – and A Canticle for Leibowitz was the third.  The second has completely slipped my mind.  I think it was one of those “the bomb explodes and then we survive by doing unspeakable things” books so common in the seventies.  However, even though the name and the author have gone into those mists from which no memory returns, it was the first book to make me aware I was reading a different genre.  I knew that WWIII hadn’t happened.  I mean, I was eleven.  So I looked at the spine, and then went in search of Alvarim (who is almost ten years older than I) and asked him “what is science fiction?”)  And he – poor kid, I mean, he was what?  Twenty?  -- gave me the best explanation he could “history turned forward.”

I guess that stuck, because when I first started writing science fiction -- sixteen? Years ago – the first thing I did was sit down and write a future history extending a thousand years in the future.
(I thought more than a thousand years would be beyond my scope, because I’m modest that way.)
I have for some time now been feeling that doing this was odd – I think I realized most people don’t do carefully outlined future histories before setting pen to paper for space opera (forgive them Heinlein, they know not what they do) sometime around when Darkship Thieves came out, and I was on a panel trying to explain when it was set.

However, it wasn’t till this blog invite came along that I realized that uh… maybe the reason I did this (I can’t answer for Heinlein, though I could make guesses) is that my background is SO different.  As in, I grew up in a region that many ways felt like a mishmash of times.

I think the first time I became aware that the language spoken in a region changed, I must have been four?  Maybe three.  On Saturdays, dad took me “for a walk” so that mom had the house to herself and could clean without me underfoot.  The walks usually went into the woods around the village where dad would show me birds’ nests, explain the different ways they were built, or we caught tadpoles, or…  Yeah, there’s a reason ‘vacation’ for me is the Natural History Museum.  BUT in Portugal it’s impossible to do that without tripping on ruins, and lintels, and even boundary markers.  A good number of these were in Latin.  So dad had to explain that Portuguese came from Latin, and the other influences that fell into it.  (Okay, he didn’t have to explain, but he chose not to be bludgeoned to death by “why?”)

After that at some point – between six and eight? – I started reading history books, starting with my brother’s (there is no real lending library system in Portugal, or there wasn’t when I lived there – might have changed now – so for a voracious reader every book is meat.  I waited with bated breath for my brother to get his school books each year, because I read them.  I also read the old ones, or re-read them.)  And then I started noticing all the debris of the past around me.

Portugal has a long past – going back, in my region, to a Celtic background and then to Phoenician and Carthaginian colonies, well before Rome came.  It’s impossible to ignore.  Some of the houses still in use dated back to the middle ages.  There were Roman ruins all over.  The soil under the village was hollowed by Roman gold mines, which were then followed by Moorish gold mines.  It played out sometime under the Moors (though I often wonder if new tech would allow us to mine residual gold) leaving a poor agricultural region and gaping holes under the entire area, which lead to sudden cave-ins in heavy weather.

History is impossible to escape.  The village up the road (from which my paternal grandfather came to marry grandma) was called Rio Tinto – that is Blood River and the story of the name is that at the last great battle between Moors and Christians, so many dead fell in the river that it ran red like blood.  (Now I’m older, I wonder if it’s been more than one battle and the name is just ascribed to the last.)
When a farmer up the street dug down to build a cow shed, he came across a Roman cemetery.  (And he shut his mouth and built anyway, because he didn’t want his land expropriated.  However, artifacts made their way out to various hands.)  When, up the street, they started digging for apartment buildings, they came across a Roman (industrial scale) oven, answering forever the question of why that area is called Forno (oven.)

Of course, the Romans weren’t the only ones to leave traces.  The area is called Aguas Santas (Holy Waters) and local tradition ascribes it to Our Lady appearing over a certain fountain in what is now a back alley.  Only… the area name and the legend date back to before the Christian Era.  Of course, Balaat of the Carthaginians was also “Our Lady.” (Yes, I very much fear excavations would reveal a tophet.

Anyway, this is by the way of saying that I could never think of history as something with an end.  A lot of the science fiction books – not just in the Golden Era, but now – seem to assume there is a beginning and an end.  An easily discernible beginning, I mean, something that we can trace exactly “it was because of Western hegemony” seems to be a favorite or “patriarchal oppression.”  Coming as I do from a place that is a hodgepodge of times and cultures, all melding together to create an unexpected result, I’m more likely to think “it’s because of humans.”

In the same way, I tend not to think of history as “ending” which means that for instance post apocalyptic novels where everyone just lives in the mud forever drive me nuts.  Civilization WOULD rise again.  It’s what our kind does.  Now, it might be unrecognizable to us, but it would rise again.  (This is why A Canticle for Leibowitz struck such a deep note.)

And this is why my novels tend to be set in a future history that has a past, but not a defined end.
There are certain forces I see playing out in human history – the play and counterplay between the people who want to control others (often for their own good) and of the people who want to be left alone (aka be free.)

Even though I think freedom can’t be won permanently (well, you know, the other guys get a say too) I think it’s the only fight worth having.  Because if we have a little more individual freedom, even for a short time, it allows civilization and humanity to take huge leaps in comfort, knowledge, and expansion.

This is largely the theme of my work.  And the freedom of Eden in Darkship Thieves gets a push-back-against in Darkship Renegades (out from Baen.)  At the same time, the regime of the Good Men is taken down (or starts to be taken down.  It’s a long process) in A Few Good Men, which starts at the end of Darkship Thieves and which comes out March 5.  It is of course, not a permanent freedom.  

But for a while, it allows Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to flourish.  And it passes the torch of freedom and hope to others, down the long road of history, who might find the ideals worth dying for.


A link to Sarah's good stuff.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love on a Grand Scale

Valentines Day...also just a matter of weeks until my annual archeology trip to northern England.

My last trip over I had a few travel snafus and ended up staying the night before my return flight at a drably generic hotel near the Newcastle airport.  I was frankly bored and ended up watching TV for the first time in weeks.  My time could have been spent better had I been aware of an inspiring project underway a short distance off....

Meet Northumberlandia:

That is for scale, see the cars on the are some close up shots from her official site.

Northumberlandia is a woman of substance.  She is a quarter mile in length and is made of 1.5 million tons (or to the Brits, tonnes) of rock and clay.  Her two most prominent "features", to the delight of the popular press, stand a towering 100 feet high.

Who, you may well ask, would be daft enough to build such a thing?  Well, as it turns out this is a project undertaken by a coal mining company.  They have a nearby open pit mine and needed something to do with all the topsoil removed.  This was seen as an interesting, environmentally friendly way to dispose of all that soil.  And a tourist attraction to boot.  The project has been ongoing for a while with little publicity until an official grand opening was held in October.

As a work of art it is interesting, and expected to evolve over time.  There will be natural weathering and the continued growth of grass.  If past experience with this sort of thing is any guide there will probably be a few instances of "guerrilla artists" adding flourishes.

Given her location I expect to see her on my next flight in to Newcastle, and might consider an actual visit on a day off of the dig site.

But she seems a little lonely.  It being Valentines Day and all, I have a match to propose.

Meet the Cerne Abbas Giant.

This bloke lives down near Dorset.  He is actually two dimensional but being laid out on a hillside and having a rather, er, assertive design the eye tends to think otherwise.

He is only 180 feet tall, and was made by simply cutting turf off of the underlying chalky soil...supplemented in recent times by some extra white outline material.

The history of the Cerne Abbas Giant is a little unclear.  Over his left shoulder there is an ancient earthwork of Iron Age vintage called the "Trendle" or the "Frying Pan".  The presence of this feature is known all the way back to Medieval times, but there exists no mention of the Giant before 1694.  This makes him a spring chicken compared to other chalk carved figures such as the Uffington White Horse.  Various theories for the "modern" creation of the Giant exist, my favorite is that it was a bit of performance art intended to make fun of Oliver Cromwell!

I think Cerne Abbas and Northumberlandia might get along well.  They seem to have a lot in common.  I suppose it will have to be a long distance relationship for a while.  A long while indeed as it would take a major geological disruption to bring them into any proximity.  Sorry C.A., you will just have to be patient I guess.

Briefly he may have had a rival for Northumberlandia's affections.  In a promotional stunt for a movie a few years back an adjacent field was commandeered and decorated with a temporary bit of art work. This was done with a water soluble substance and makes an interesting pairing.....

How's a girl to choose...

As it happens the local pagan community is quite keen on Cerne Abbas, deeming him for obscure reasons a sort of fertility symbol.  They took umbrage at the presence of Homer who is instead a symbol for corporate media and doughnut consumption.  They claimed they were going to do some kind of rain ceremony to wash him away.

Given my experiences with English weather I doubt they made it to the car park after their press conference before their metaphysical efforts became irrelevant!
I am not going to take sides in a Homer vs Cerne Abbas competition for the monumental charms of Northumberlandia.  But should Homer strike out I am told that the UK version of his famous "D'Oh!" would be "DERRR..."  It is good to know such things.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The First Zeppelin Flight

Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin was so instrumental in the development of lighter than air vehicles that "zeppelin" has become a synonym for them.  But his very first flight in such a wonder of the age occurred not in his native Germany, but in a most unlikely the United States....and in what had until very recently been a frontier town.  The time and place?  1863, St. Paul,  Minnesota.

You might imagine that this was a little out of his way.  Goodness, it was a little out of everyone's way.

The Count had come to America as one of the numerous foreign military observers assigned to one side or the other in the Civil War.  He arrived on our shores in late 1862 or early 1863.  He appears to have actually met with Abraham Lincoln and obtained a military pass and permission to follow the Army of the Potomac.  He does not seem to have been involved in much actual combat, but did take an interest in the observation balloons then in use by the Army.

For some reason, perhaps boredom, Zeppelin left the Army of the Potomac.  It sounds as if his position  was rather....flexible in this regard.  He made his way up through New York, supposedly along the way observing draft riots in New York City and swimming under Niagara Falls.  (An element of caution might be in order, the Count did have a bit of Baron von Munchhausen in him!)

Implausibly he took ship on the Great Lakes and made his way all the way to Superior, Wisconsin at the far end of Lake Superior.  He was by this point in company with some Russians, perhaps with a goal of seeking the headwaters of the Mississippi.  If that was their goal they took a very wrong turn, going south instead of northwest.  Probably their goal all along was to get to St. Paul, capitol of the new state of Minnesota.  Their journey along a dismal military trail passed fairly close to my cabin, and involved "great hardship". I assume they were a tasty meal for the ancestors of the mosquitoes that have bothered me in recent years.

On August 17th Zeppelin checked into the International Hotel at 7th and Jackson Street in St. Paul.  He was at this time still accompanied by a "Mr. Donsemaren" of Russia.

On the day the weary travelers checked in, the empty lot across the street was occupied by an "enclosure" of a traveling balloonist.  This was John Steiner, a German from Philladelphia.  He had actually served with the observer corps of the Union army for a while but quit due to his pay being in arrears.

In an interview given late in his life von Zeppelin recalls that there was considerable difficulty obtaining enough gas to inflate the balloon.  Indeed, a contemporary newspaper account says that the balloon could hold 41,000 cubic feet but that the local gas company could only supply 36,000.  This made for a somewhat curtailed schedule of flights, but Ferdinand von Zeppelin seems to have been one of those making an individual ascent in the tethered "captive" balloon.

And he was hooked.

Graf von Zeppelin spent the rest of his life pursuing the dream of flight.  One wonders if on his death during World War One he felt remorse over the use of his flying machines for dropping bombs.

Here is the International Hotel as it appeared in 1865.  The empty lot from which von Zeppelin made his first flight is in the foreground.

Photo credit Minnesota Historical Society.  Used with permission

And here is the same spot today.  Coincidentally it is still a mostly empty lot, but the Winter Carnival parade did fill the parking spaces up a bit.

The Romans had a notion that the spirit of a place, the "genius" as they would put it, was a persisting thing.  Maybe they are right.  Just around the corner from where the Count first took to the skies we find this:

Up, up and into the Void...

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Robot Dragster Project - Chapter Eight!

Note:  usual rotation of postings is off kilter this week.  It happens sometimes...

Tasks for the build session were as follows:  Strengthen steering assembly for crash resistance.  Finish wiring the steering actuator.  If time permits, install brake.  And test, test, test.

The good news is that failsafe test went as expected.  Turn off the transmitter, or drop it, or drive out of range, or swallow the frequency crystal....and power to the drive motor cycles off.

So, all we really needed to do was get a feel for the machine as it drives under (hopefully) steering control.

It drives with a very light touch.  The first couple of kids only got 30 feet or so before bouncing off the hallway walls.  The control stick just needs gentle nudges when the dragster starts to drift.  Later kids did better, getting maybe 80 or 90 feet before I told them to power off.  There was one brief collision with a projecting bit of masonry while the 8th grade principle happened to be watching, but only a few plywood splinters.  The steering reinforcement held.

But then the ranges started getting a little longer, the steering corrections a bit harder. One test driver was doing very well, perhaps the best run of the day, when I told him to power down the drive.

Unfortunately he did not have his finger on that control so he had to look at the transmitter for just an instant.


The dragster veered to one side, and hit the wall of the girl's bathroom at a freak angle. Darned if it did not snap the half inch plywood right behind the battery mount!  Of course this is a weak spot since it became necessary to saw a hole in the dragster for a bigger drive pulley.

Back in the pit area:

And here a privacy rules compliant moment of silence by part of the build team:

Of course the kids generally felt badly, and the ill starred driver worst of all.  But actually this was a good thing on almost all levels.

-More testing always shows you more ways to improve.
-We have one full build session left.
-The steering held.
-It will only take about 15 minutes to fix this...just screw a couple of support struts onto the bottom.
-It provided considerable amusement to all adults in the vicinity!
-The kids learned something today.  The hard way, which is often the most durable form of learning.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Visit to the Fab Lab

I've mentioned my middle kid a few times.  This is the chap with mechanical abilities that lie somewhere in the interface between art, science and alchemy.  Naturally, and after only a few stubborn detours, he is in college studying manufacturing engineering.

He has this great on-campus job.  His school was setting up a "Fab Lab" and needed someone to install the machinery then stay on and work.  I had only a sketchy idea of what this place seemed to be some kind of prototyping shop.

Recently they had a Grand Opening.  Spouse and I sort of invited ourselves to the special Open House for Faculty and Titans of Industry.  What the heck, you can almost always bluff your way through these things and anyway a couple of the staff there know I teach robotics.

It was a fascinating presentation and I learned much.

Fab Labs started as an outreach program from the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.  They have ambitious goals.  Basically they want for it to be possible for "anyone to make anything anywhere".  They specifically indicate that they are aiming for the Star Trek replicator.

There are about 150 of these labs operating at present, with projected doubling every 18 months. They have all sorts of cool toys, 3D printers, computer controlled milling machines, printed circuit fabricators, laser engravers, plasma cutters.  Basically just about anything you can imagine that will turn computer instructions into finished, customized parts.

But the real point of this "movement" is not what you can do today, but what you will be able to do tomorrow.  Also, where you will be doing it.

The top end toys like the 3D printers are dropping radically in price.  What cost $100,000 dollars a couple of years ago now sells for $20,000.  And it works better and faster.  And in a couple of more years it will be still better, cheaper and faster.  This is in line with what personal computing has done since its inception.

Probably there will always be a need for big sooty factories, mostly in China, that make millions of identical nuts and bolts.  But the Fab Lab exists so that people with moderate technical abilities can make a small number of things that they need right then and there.  A chair. A circuit board.  A work of art.  A prototype you can then present to the mass manufacturer.

This in part explains the highly unlikely distribution of Fab Labs around the world.  Iceland with a population of about 350,000 has four, soon to be six of them.  Why? Well, if you are in the middle of the frigid North Atlantic you really would rather not send away to Norway or China for that one odd widget you need.  The shipping costs would clobber you for one thing.

There are quite a few Fab Labs in Spain, where youth unemployment is a tragic 50%. There is a video link hook up of the entire Fab Lab network and we heard from a Spanish city, Barcelona I think, that is setting up a network of these places.  The goal is that all local needs will be made.....locally.

I was shocked to learn that there is a Fab Lab in Afghanistan.  I really hope the Taliban do not hear about it.

The father of the Fab Lab movement is a shaggy MIT Prof named Neil Gershenfeld.  He gave us quite a talk over the video link.  He sees a future where this becomes the new paradigm for manufacturing.  He sees the current machines as being pretty much like the primitive lathes and mills of the early Industrial Revolution.  In a few years-and the rate of change is hard to predict-he sees ever more complex things being made.  Machines that make new machines that make other new machines.  Machines that manufacture using materials that already contain data processing capabilities.  Perhaps the Star Trek replicators-like the Star Trek communicators-were an underestimate of what we can do.

It sounds great.  I am very happy that my son is in on what amounts to the ground floor. He rather realistically describes himself as "the least unqualified person working there".

And it will all turn out according to plan.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong with intelligent machines linked together in a world wide network...creating more machines that are ever smarter and smarter?

This public service message/vision of the future brought to you by:

And the Borg Collective

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Less than Golden Season

I don't pay that much attention to "the minor sports" but a friend of ours has a son who played for the University of Minnesota Football team.  They are called "The Golden Gophers" and in recent years their prowess has been approximately that of their tiny rodent mascot.

It is probably never a good thing when your fan merchandise turns up at Axman Surplus, but a 6-7 season (2-6 in their conference) will do things like that.

A foam rubber hat in the likeness of a goofy rodent head.  And right next to it a box of flags.  Given the color I assume these were what fans were supposed to wave when the mighty Gophers scored a touch down.

Unlike some of the stuff in a surplus store, these don't look to have been used too heavily.

Monday, February 4, 2013

History in the cards

A few years ago an old patient gave me an envelope full of German cigarette cards.  These things were pretty popular in Europe and the UK in the 1930s, and were collected and pasted into albums.  He had picked them up for some reason when he was a serviceman during the Second World War and later on Occupation duty.

This particular set is called "Der Nachkreigzeit", or The Time after the War.  It refers of course to the time after World War One, as at the time of their issue in 1934 few anticipated that there would be a second go around.

They make an interesting time capsule.  It is a brief peek into Germany at just the time that things were changing.  The Great Depression was starting to let up a bit, and political change was in the air.

Many of the images are just current events, some forgotten today.  Here is a view from the German Greenland Expedition:
Hey, this guy looks very familiar....

Marty Feldman as "Eyegore"

Other images have some subtle propaganda slant, as if to show that the rest of the world has problems even worse than Germany.
The title of this one is "Labor Unrest in England".

My guess is that most Germans at the time recognized that this and all other forms of domestic information contained some bias.  By this time the first concentration camps had been established and the Communists blamed for the Reichstag fire.  But were any of them farsighted enough to see the point at which the tone of information began to foretell darker things?

Here is the tomb of Nazi martyr Horst Wessel, with its legend "Raise High the Banner". 

And when you start to accept that you are being lied to on a regular basis, how long before this happens?

And the reverse of this card describing Adolph Hitler's speech contains the final darkness:

Note where the cards were made:  Dresden