Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Days of Chalk and Chickens

It has been a year, almost to the day, since I officially retired from medicine.  I am of course asked periodically "what do you do now?".

The best answer is that I have become a poorly trained but much appreciated Vaudeville performer.  And street artist.  And general dogsbody.

Several days a week my wife and I help with our grandson.  

My wife does most of the real work, meal prep, diapers and so forth.  I provide comic relief, distraction: basically I have become the clown you hire for birthday parties.

It is interesting to compare my performances now to those of a generation ago.  I'm older, sure, but I have plenty of time and no other pressing business like a career. In some ways I have "upped the game".

The kid and I build stuff with Duplo blocks.  We read stories.  Those featuring cows and trucks seem to enjoy the most enduring popularity.  We play hide and seek.  He chases me around the house waving his arms and shrieking like a maniac.  In quieter moments I sing him songs, some old, others new improvisations.  I am particularly fond of my revision of the old "Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" ditty.  New verses all around including:

"Two Little Monkeys Jumping all around.
One went Up and Never came Down.
Mama called 'You Come Back Soon!'
Monkey laughed 'I'm on the Moon!'"

My sidewalk chalk skills are pretty lame.  He seems not to care.  The lounging mutt is Bruce, a bit player in some of our activities.

Although it has been a quarter century or more since my last major story reading gig, some standards just remain the same.  Richard Scarry's Magnum Opus "Cars, Trucks and Things that Go" was a big hit until very recently.  Back in the day I hated this book.  It had multiple interwoven story lines and on top of that you had to seek out, on every page, this little guy.   Here he is in plain sight but on most pages he is peeking out of a window or some such.

Goldbug looks cheerful.  But essentially he is a verminous little stalker.  If "Officer Flossy" did not have a full time job trying to run down "Dingo Dog" I bet she'd have told Bug to "Get out of Dodge" long ago.  Oh well. Since he turns up everywhere anyway I started adding Goldbug graffiti here and there.  Putting it on the chicken coop eventually seems to have backfired on me....

This is "Possum", another of my assistants.  We do elaborate puppet shows.  Originally it was one of Bruce's toys that we have taken over.  Possum has two different "squeakers" inside him. I amuse at least myself by attempting to play a few bars of various songs with them.

They say when graffiti tags start showing up in a neighborhood that things start to go down hill.  I'd say this is true.  The chickens used to be timid birds, hiding in their coop and only clucking for food when you came around with scraps.  Now when we sit out in the yard this gang of avian punks shows up and aggressively pan handles!  Beady little eyes just watching for dropped snacks.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Robotics Pre-Season 2017

A fun and busy "off season" week for the Robotics programs.  

The middle school robotics class went live for on line registration at 2:00 on Wednesday.  All 24 spots filled by 2:01.

And on Saturday the parade went off rather well.  Marvelous weather.  A good turn out of team members.  There was even a little extra time left over for work space tidy up.

In true robotics fashion the robot performed flawlessly on several pre-parade checks. Then when it was our turn to join the line it decided to not work.  Again in true robotics fashion the team tossed it onto the trailer and continued to commune with the laptop driver's station.  As we turned off of the access road and onto the actual route it came to life and drove amusingly the entire route.  It seemed to be a big hit.

A few pictures of the parade and a couple of short video clips.

Here we are lining up at high noon on a hot asphalt parking lot.

Notice if you will, that our trailer has a gigantic welded together alligator and a huge yellow industrial robot.

My job was just to follow along, make sure the drivers did not get too crazy, and to keep the emergency repair kit close to hand.  It was not needed although we did have to switch to the auxiliary battery on the competition robot.  This did not stop the progress of the parade, the kids made the needed connections switches while still in motion.

Our drivers were good, but not up the the precision driving of the Shriners in their little mini cars.  Well, they have had more practice.  And they are wearing fezzes which I think must help somehow.

Two short videos.  In the first one our competition robot chases the "Chairbot" around a bit.


Here Chairbot just ambles about in lazy fashion....


It promises to be a very fun robotics season ahead.

Friday, August 11, 2017

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany. We must be cautious" - Termini Station.

Termini Station, Rome's main rail hub, has a rather poor reputation.  People say that it is crowded, poorly laid out, and a magnet for petty criminals of all stripe.

This general prejudice is entirely justified.

But lets include it in this week's "History in a Place".  Not all history is fun.

The name Termini by the way does not refer to it being the terminus of assorted rail lines.  It took its name from the ancient district "Termini", which in turn got its designation from the Baths (Thermae) of Diocletian which are right across the street.

We went through Termini station twice on our trip to Italy.  It is such a chaotic blur that I find it impossible to actually describe it as a whole.  I could only take in brief glimpses.

There were fancy high fashion stores in the place.  It seemed to me that harried travelers already hauling over sized luggage would be a questionable clientele.

There was an older woman sitting on a cart talking to the police. "I can't believe it....", she said in English.  

Outside on the pavement a young man in shabby clothes lay next to a half empty bottle.  He was motionless.  His eyes were slightly open.  I suppose he was simply very drunk but I have seen enough dead people to say he was doing a fair impersonation of one. The police seemed unconcerned.  The big suitcases on wheels swerved to avoid him.

Four young girls were having trouble with the bus system.  They were ten or eleven years old, well dressed, talkative and without any visible adult presence.  As we waited for a bus I saw them hop onto one and a moment later, hop off, still chattering.

Our bus arrived and we got on.  I was hauling more luggage than I prefer to.  The girls got on and one of them looked at me and said "Trastevere"".  I said in Italian that, yes, the bus went there.  Then she pointed at the floor and said, in English, "Is that yours?"

There on the floor of the bus was my wallet.  I bent over to pick it up. When I looked up the four girls were gone.  So of course was all the cash in the wallet.

It's not as if we were absolute naifs in this matter.  I had my wallet in a front pocket and it was jammed in with some other items that should have made removal difficult. But these were pros.

I did have a money belt that contained our passports and back up credit cards. Actually they left one card in the wallet, either because they could get in trouble by having something other than anonymous cash on them or because the few seconds they had were not sufficient to retrieve it.  I rather appreciate that they did not just hop off the bus with my wallet, the bother of cancelling that card would have been significant.


Time for a bit of practical advice.

Avoid Termini station entirely if possible.  If you are arriving from the airport don't take the Express train in.  Either get a taxi, which is worth it, or if you are going to Trastevere just take the slower local train that goes to the station in that part of town.

I have worn a money belt in various higher crime cities and felt a bit silly about it.  I won't feel that way again.  Just keep daily expense money handy.  Unfortunately in the sort of cash oriented economy that is Italy this will still be a bit of currency.

I suppose if you actually observed this scenario playing out you could yell for the police or grab one of the little Dodgers.  I don't doubt that the screams of protest, appeals for help, accusations of molestation etc would be a performance worthy of High Opera.    
Oh, if you do end up in the Termini area there are a few other sights worth seeing.  I think if you were a couple hundred yards away from the station you will have no hassle beyond the countless hucksters all trying to sell tickets to bus tours.

Take a brief look at the Pre-Republic Servian Wall next to the station.

There is also a very good museum nearby, it is a branch of the Roman National Museum in the former Palazzo Messimo alle Therme.  Really outstanding mosaics and sculptures.  This collection outgrew the space at the Baths of Diocletian (also well worth your time) that we visited earlier.

There are other ancient sites in the area around Termini but with the usual Italian access issues and my general distaste for the neighborhood I did not explore further.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Roman Bath Tubs!

I am deviating a bit today from my "History in a Place" format.  Because some of the bath tubs I am going to show today are indeed from the vicinity of the Baths of Diocletian.  But others are from here and there.  

When you think of Romans taking a bath, of course the first thought is of the large public bath houses.  But honestly, would that really be for everyone?  Aristocrats, delicate ladies...they might not be on board with soaking alongside the hoi polloi. Private bath facilities clearly existed alongside the public ones. Perhaps in the comfort of one's villa?  Or in upscale executive suites at the public baths?  And for those purposes smaller scale bath tubs would be needed.  In fact given the same dimensions of the human body then and now, you would expect them to look a lot like today's fixtures.

The problems associated with a study of Roman bath tubs are several.  There were probably not all that many of them.  They were often re-purposed as baptismal fonts, or as watering troughs for livestock and so forth.  It can be hard to tell the simpler ones from your basic sacrophagi or from vats used for industrial purposes. 

Context helps.  Here for instance is a "private" bath tub from Pompeii. 

And to get back on topic, here are several on display at the Baths of Diocletian.  I am assuming that they are from the site.

The last one of course is not a proper bath tub.  More of a hand washing station but I liked it enough to include it.

Now, if you want to see some impressive Roman bath tubs you need to go across town. Check this beauty out:

Welcome to the Piazza Farnese.  This is the open space in front of the former Palazzo Farnese, a High Renaissance palace built by the Farnese family to show their considerable affluence and prestige.  (It is now the French Embassy).

Out front some swell decor was needed so a pair of over sized bath tubs were acquired.  The best evidence suggests they came from the Baths of Caracalla, and were made of Egyptian granite.  You could clearly fit a number of bathers into one of these, sort of the Roman Imperial version of a hot tub party.

All of these examples are fine of course, but seem to lack a certain...Patrician fashion sense.  Contrast them with this nice example in Egyptian red porphyry that serves as a baptismal font in the Milan cathedral!

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Baths of Diocletian

I was not gentle in my review of the Baths of Caracalla.  But I did have to admit that they were enormous.  Well, if that is any measure of things the Baths of Diocletian should be better.  Similar in overall size - 32 acres - they were said to have a greater capacity....3000 bathers at a time if you can believe ancient sources.

Still, you could easily walk right past these baths and not notice them.  Not because there is nothing left, but because what survives is well camouflaged.

Here is a "floor plan" of the baths:

And here is an aerial view of the site today:

The curved area in the photo corresponds to the area marked "7" on the plan. This is the "excedra" of the baths, and is preserved in the outline of the modern day Piazza della Repubblica.  On one end of same we find this structure.  I think it corresponds to number "2" on the floor plan.  If so, the remains of the "laconium", a "dry sweat room" have become the entrance to......

The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs).  The main body of the church was built into the ruins of the "frigidarium" - or cold baths - of the Diocletian complex.  The architect was some guy named Michelangelo.  Inside you can't really tell you are in a Roman structure but from the outside you get a better sense of it.

One of the two circular towers that flank the excedra has also survived.  It is the Church of San Bernardo alle Terme:

A fair bit of the bath structures have also been preserved by incorporation into a branch of the Roman National Museum.  Several large halls were used during medieval and Renaissance times as grain and oil storage warehouses.  Later uses include a cinema and planetarium!  The museum has a lot of great stuff in it...frankly we did not allot enough time for it.  A few quick peeks:

This is the cloister of the Carthusian Charterhouse, also designed by Michelangelo.  Or sketched out on a scrap and handed off to one of his students.  It is now a fabulous sculpture garden.  No explanatory info, just lots and lots of sculptures, tombstones, broken columns.  Some from this location, some from elsewhere.  On the aerial view you can see this area clearly.

One of the former halls of the baths.  This was later used for storage.  The roof is now gone from this part.  Some kind of live performance had just ended, this explains the oddly attired individual.

This complex was so huge it apparently used the entire output of the Roman brick industry for the years it was under construction. When traveling with Roman Nerds you tend to get excited about otherwise mundane things.  Here is a display of bricks from the site.  With stamped on maker's marks.  And the stamps.

The museum had a lot of cool stuff.  Can it get much cooler than a fragment of the Severan Plan?  This was a large marble "map" that was located in the Roman Forum. It was the equivalent of a "You are Here" map.  Incredible detail.  This shows the location where the baths would later be built.  Nerd Paradise.

I had originally intended to include in this post some photos of Roman bathtubs that were on display in the museum, but as I am running a bit long lets save that for next time....

Friday, August 4, 2017

Ray and Millie's Chair Rides Again

Across the street from us is a house that until recently has been occupied by a series of elderly folks.  It makes sense, its one story, in a safe part of town and is close to things.

Our favorite oldsters were a couple named Ray and Millie.  

This was at a time when we had active boys tearing around the neighborhood, often using our front lawn for elaborate games.  Ray and Millie would sometimes just set up their lawn chairs and watch.

After a few years they both passed away.  Ray had a sudden cardiac arrest one day. Millie just grew weaker and weaker until she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. They were both swell people.

Somehow we ended up with a couple of their chairs.  Not the lawn chairs, but a pair of vintage blue velour covered easy chairs.  They never made the A-list furniture.  I think they had a brief stay in our family room, then they went to the lake cabin. Finally they ended up in ignored in our utility room...just a stay of execution until the weary old chairs "went away".

So it was excellent timing when an opportunity to put one of the chairs to good use came up.

Our FIRST Robotics team is going to be in the local parade.  And while our competition robot is cool, it lacks a certain something.  For one thing parade rules mean we can't fire up the ball shooter or the rope climber.  So its just a colorful box driving around.

We needed something a bit more eye catching, so I figured lets have our robot driven by somebody sitting in an old easy chair....which is itself being driven!  Hopefully they can chase each other around.  So, how to "robotize" Ray's old chair?

 We started by taking off the swivel base.

 Most of the "guts" of this project were left overs from my "Battlebot" Days.  It shows.

 Adding the electronics, which uncharacteristically fired up on the first attempt. 

The final result.  We have a bit of tweaking to do but it is basically parade ready.  Not bad for 4.5 hours of work.

My video skills are quite deficient, but I did shoot a few seconds of the mostly finished parade unit being driven for the first time. I can't help it.  After so many robots built over so many years the "Von Frankenstein" moment when a creation first powers up and moves is still special.


Its a tribute to our team's dedication that they came in to work on a summer vacation afternoon.  And seemed to be having a good time.

Ray and Millie would have enjoyed watching.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Minnesota Twins Report. A Season Ending Too Soon.

My "baseball" category on Detritus of Empire is a lightly used one.  The topic is covered extensively both on line and in the dwindling pages of the daily newspaper. But I like odd stuff...and baseball always is good for a bit of it.

My Major League team is the Minnesota Twins.  True, I have lived elsewhere for the majority of my life but the team you grew up cheering for will always be your team.  I could make an exception perhaps for somebody whose life took them say, from a National League city to an American league town, but otherwise anyone who frivolously changes one of their primary default settings is to be regarded as shifty. You just can't know where their loyalties really lie.

Last year the Twins were awful.  This year they came out of Spring training and were wonderful.  Thumbing their noses at the pundits who uniformly picked them to finish last in the league they actually were the best team around for a while.  And then....

Well baseball is a harsh meritocracy.  And as spring turned into summer they slipped. Out of first place.  Out of contention.  Under .500.  The usual story of course. Injuries. Young players promoted too soon.  A error here, a couple of days where your starting pitchers get knocked out early, a quirky schedule where you go up against a string of genuine contenders.  Things happen.  Bad things.

But unless you are a Yankees fan it is not reasonable to expect a Championship Season every year.  And you find other things to enjoy.  The odd stuff.

Item One.  Bartolo Colon.

So desperate were the Twins for any pitcher with a detectable pulse that they were willing to even fudge a bit on that minimum requirement.  At age 44 Bartolo is the oldest player in the Majors.  His weight is dubiously listed at 285 pounds.  Last year he became the oldest player in Major League history to hit his first home run.  2016 was one of those years (Cubs, Donald Trump, etc) when all manner of impossible things happened.  Observe and marvel:

Of course the Twins did not sign him for his bat.  Nor did his previous team release him without cause.  Hoping that his losing the last four starts for Atlanta, Minnesota took a flyer on him.  In his new uniform he has lost all three starts.  And in the American League pitchers don't even get to bat.

Item Two.  Chris Gimenez.

Generally speaking in baseball pitching is done by, well, pitchers.  When a position player takes the mound something very bad is going on.  Usually what has happened is your starting pitcher has gotten knocked out early.  And his replacement got knocked out soon after.  And then his replacement.  When the score becomes hopeless and you have to put somebody out there it is time for an emergency pitcher.  In the case of the Twins it means a call to Chris Gimenez.

Mr. Gimenez primarily a catcher.  So he does have the range dialed in to toss a ball gently back and forth over the proper distance.  With the Twins pitching staff being charitably described as "thin", blowout games are fairly common.  And by mid season Chris Gimenez set what seems to be a Major League record for pitching appearances by a non pitcher at six.  He has not won or lost a game yet....coming in when your team is already down by a ton makes either unlikely. Remarkably his Earned Run Average of 7.2 is better than that of six ACTUAL pitchers that the team has foolishly entrusted with the ball.

Ah but as a true fan I am always looking towards seasons yet to come.  And even there I find amusement.  Down on the farm, as they say when speaking of the minor league teams affiliated with the Big Club, there are some fascinating things happening.  The Chattanooga Lookouts recently got mired in a 21 run marathon game.  So much weird going on.  The winning pitcher of course was a position player, one Max Murphy who usually plays right field.  Why, he actually struck somebody out!  

In the American League, and their minor league affiliates, pitchers don't bat, that function being taken over by a "Designated Hitter".  But there are occasions where you have to make substitutions that eliminate your "DH".  For 11 of the 21 innings the Lookouts pitchers had to bat.  At least it appears that was what they were trying to do up there!


Probably the Twins are going to finish with a losing record.  But I can still root for them.  Perhaps Chris Gimenez will be called on to pitch in an actual close game.  And maybe Bartolo Colon will be around long enough to be put in as a pinch hitter....the baseball world would hold its collective breath waiting for History to be Made.