Friday, March 24, 2017

Wisconsin - Still Number One.

Wisconsin is not a proud and haughty state.  Oh, we root for our sports teams and all, but in general we don't do much bragging here in America's Dairy Land.

But a few years ago we Badgers suffered a crushing blow, a crisis that shook us to the very core of what defines us.

California took over as the number one producer of both milk and cheese.

I think there may have been an over reaction to this.  I mean, how else can you explain this sign seen at a highway rest stop?

Ah, the wonders of Sphagnum moss.  Some fresh faced intern at the DOT or Commerce department probably took this assignment seriously, and regards this marker as his or her crowning achievement.  Wisconsin.  Number one in Sphagnum production.  No other states are even trying.  In yo' face California.

Never mind that Sphagnum does not seem to have been used for surgical dressings since World War I, or that the United States imports 80% of its Sphagnum needs from - gulp - Canada.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When Being Chubby is in Vogue....

I am surprised to find that our local grocery store continues to sell coloring books up near the checkout lines....still on the racks that held real publications until a couple of months ago.  It makes for some odd juxtapositions...

I guess I have seen things on the cover of The National Enquirer that look less realistic than Hello Kitty.

But Vogue and Glamour magazines have always featured impossibly gaunt, usually unhappy looking models.  This Happy Piggy would be a real departure for them.  She is probably happy because she gets to eat more than half a sprig of celery every other Tuesday.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Men in Black at the Old Guy Coffee Place

People handle retirement in different ways.  We should all try to be sympathetic because going from a full time, high pressure, high responsibility role straight to nothing is a jarring life change.  

As somebody who has retired fairly young from just such a job I feel as if I should offer a bit of advice to a guy I know who is going through this and might be having a bit of difficulty adapting.

He is spending too much time on Facebook.  Social media should be used for cat videos and travel photos.  Most people care more about your pets than your pet causes. 

And he calls.  Every few days.  On the Land Line of all things!  Whatta geezer! He never even waits for me to answer its just:

"Hello, this is Barack Obama".

For a decade - two terms plus your initial campaign - you have of necessity been neglecting your family.  You have had to face criticism every time you play a round of golf when something is on fire somewhere in the world...which damn it is always.  When you were center stage people even begrudged you the occasional vacation, pointing to a running tally of how much it cost taxpayers to shuttle Air Force One and the limos and the entourage.

Now, when you can do whatever you choose with nobody much caring you shouldn't still be Political.

I say this as friendly advice.  On the issues we have areas where we agree and disagree.  I have voted for you and against you.  I understand that there are causes you care about but perhaps even there you should ask if your personal involvement so soon after leaving office helps or hurts things.

American politics has unwritten traditions.  One is that First Family Children are off the radar screen.  So I have no way of knowing how a life of celebrity and often absent parents has impacted your daughters.  I wish for the best for them.  You have remaining a precious but very narrow window of time left to be "dad".  Take them white water rafting, or build a Habitat Home with them. Or anything else in the Real World that the still lingering Security detail deems suitable.  They, the kids not the Agents, will soon be gone.

It is another tradition that former Presidents restrain their opinions on the actions of their successors for at least a year.  It's a good tradition, one that your predecessor has honored not for one year but essentially for eight.  It probably does more for your legacy than anything else.  

Ah, here I go again.  A Retired Guy running on at length.  It's best done over several cups of coffee at one of the designated Old Guy Coffee places.  Gimme a real call some time, not the robo variety.  

I obviously have time in my schedule.  We'll get together.  The serious looking guys wearing sunglasses can buy their own coffee but you'll be my guest.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Brick Yard Dog

As is obvious from a casual visit to Detritus of Empire I am interested in Industrial Archeology. Old brewery ruins, mysterious foundations in the woods, that sort of thing.  But there is one category that I have been trying hard to avoid.  Brick Yards.

Oh, bricks are interesting enough.  Actually they are a nice bit of local history.  And I do, literally, stumble across them in my hunt for other stuff.  But for we retired folk there is a danger.  It is too easy for a mild interest to become a thing you collect.  Pretty soon you own a pick up truck to drive to Brick Swaps and have your entire back yard covered in a lumpy brick patio.

But Brick Yards are interesting darn it.  Clay pits.  Kilns.  Acres of drying racks.  So I sometimes take a peek.  Just out of curiosity you know. Not going to pick up any bricks or anything.

It helps to start on an avenue called Brick Yard Road.  Now, I must admit I initially misread this sign.  I thought it said Brick Yard Dog.

Here's part of the reason why.  On this road you have the local Humane Society and animal shelter as well as a Dog Park where the critters can run free.  Oh, also the Brick Yard Disc Golf Course which this sign actually directs you to.

Bricks popping out of the ground everywhere.  Guess this must be the place.

I am new at this brand of hunting, so I will be tentative in my conclusions.  But this hollowed out area "might" be the clay pit from which many millions of bricks were made.  Or it could be natural. Just as with brewery caves there are logical places where a business would situate things.  Bricks and their raw materials are just about the definition of heavy, so you really do not want to haul things up hill.

A pleasant hour was spent wandering about.  I am pleased to report that I did not walk away with a single brick.  But the temptations, oh they were there.  It is not fair to put free building materials and a shelter with cute adoptable pups on the same road.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Detritus of a Robotics Season

Early on we kept the work space clean and tidy.  Even in mid season we were OK, mostly because we had scheduled tours for interested visitors.  But as we hit weeks five and six standards slipped.  I did go in early many days and try to sort the worst of the clutter and to toss out trash.

Debris and stray hardware from the 2017 FIRST build campaign.

This is actually an important artifact.  It is from last season.  It was a critical part that was predicted to fail.  Our ability to anticipate this and be ready with a fix exemplified our build philosophy: Simple, Strong, Done Ahead of Deadline, Be Ready.  

I keep it hanging on a peg in our work space as a reminder.

Building two robots has increased our costs this year.  I justify it on some level as a Capital Investment.  These aluminum brackets for 80/20 are not cheap, and we ended up buying a bunch.  But they will be scavenged off this year's machines and reused for All Time.

I thought it would be helpful to have a drill template for 80/20.  Something you could clamp on and have pre-set holes for drilling mounting points.  It has not been used much.  But with its carnival colors it has also not been lost yet.  Red and Blue are official FIRST colors.

Found on a work bench.  The signature, indeed, the very meaning is unclear.

Sweeping up on the last build session before the robot went into pre-tournament storage:

Bits of wire, cut off cable ties.  Metal shavings.  Plain old low tech dirt.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Biggest Cubs Fans On* Earth

Because it is my all time favorite short story I have mentioned on more than one occasion a work by W.P. Kinsella called "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon".  In it the manager of an implausibly contending Chicago Cubs teams begins having strange dreams....

"The five people gathered around God were, Al Tiller discovered, representative of baseball fans, how many he wasn't able to determine, but certainly a large contingent, all apparently deceased.  Lobbying, Tiller supposed, was the word for what they were doing.  Each one, in turn, pleaded politely with God to see that the Chicago Cubs won the pennant."

In the story God informs the fans, and Al Tiller, that if the Cubs win the National League pennant the world will come to an end.  I believed this on some level - generations of failure have to have some cosmic cause - until last year.  2016, a year when a great many implausible things happened, had the hapless Cubs not only win their first National League pennant since the fiery dawn of the nuclear age, then went on to win the World Series to boot.  And we all seem to still be here.

Imagine my surprise then when strolling through the Bohemian National Cemetery and encountered this:

It is a small scale replica of The Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, where the most devoted, fanatically devoted Cubs fans can have their ashes interred.  An impressive example of After Life imitating Art.

Above you see seats somehow spirited out of the ball park.  There is a home plate.  The style of brick is authentic.  400 feet is in fact the distance to straight center field.  Of course visiting in early spring the famous Ivy was not leafed out to complete the illusion.

I did not see faint spectral figures sitting in the seats, but in full sunlight one would hardly expect to.  If you lingered on until just before cemetery closing time I think definite Presences would be perceived.

Here is the Roll of Honor.  The most Loyal among the loyalist fans on earth.

The little memorial offering above hints at the origins of this marvelous folly.  

The mausoleum - or to be pedantic, columbarium - is the realized vision of a man named Dennis Mascari.  Obviously a serious Cubs fan he had come away from a visit to his father's grave with more than the expected amount of sadness.  So what would be a fitting theme to lift the spirits of surviving family?

In 2009 "Beyond the Vines" opened.  It gave Cubs fans the opportunity to have their ashes placed into an urn with the Cubs logo on it and then put into a niche in this replica of the Cubs home park.  The project of course has gotten plenty of attention, as all mad ventures seem to. So far it is somewhat "under booked", just 20 or so occupants of the 288 niches.

But even that is fitting.  During the long, long years without a pennant the Cubs often played to sparse crowds.  The fact that until fairly recently they only played day games probably contributed a bit.  On a sunny afternoon when lesser fans were at work you could tune in and see the True Believers sitting alone or in small groups out in the bleachers.

Dennis Mascari tragically died young.  Here is his memorial marker.  Notice that it says "Please tap here after they win"?  He didn't mean after they win a game, he meant after they win it all.

So of course I gave it a quick tap.

I know he heard me.

* Whether these fans are On Earth or not is a semantic question.  They are departed and are presumably in some form of South Side Valhalla.  But since their urns are in an above ground location I say "On Earth" can still apply.

Friday, March 10, 2017

National Bohemian Cemetery - Fallen Timber

There were a lot of unusual things about the National Bohemian Cemetery in Chicago, and I again suggest a visit to any serious student of Tree Shaped Tombstones.  One thing that I found surprising in this well kept establishment was how many of my favorite monuments were "fallen", that is, lying flat on the ground.

Now granted I visited in late February and after a winter of freeze/thaw that makes the ground shift about I was not surprised to see one fallen tree.  But then I saw another, and another.

It was of course an opportunity to study the methods - seemingly rather flawed - by which these monuments were erected.

National Bohemian had an amazing number of the taller varients of Tree Shaped tombstones. Having more weight to balance I suspect they are more prone to tipping.  Note in the background an array of more conventional markers....all with sturdy, squat bases.  

Another tree goes down.

Here's the base of this one.  Flat, shallow looking slab of cement with lots of cracks.

Yet another tombstone down.  Again with the shoddy looking cracked foundation.  Note the central hole for, I think, a metal lifting tong.  Also the rough surface.  If it was for masonry this has all been leached away.  Perhaps it was left rough because nobody thought it would ever be visible.

Tree shaped tombstones were very disproportionately represented in the "tipped over" category that day.  But I don't suspect hooliganism.  This was a nicely kept up place and anyway, hooligans are rarely that selective.  But check out this "leaner" that will probably not stay standing for too many more seasons.

And other, better supported monuments are not immune to the actions of the elements.  Here a solid granite marker is listing aside as if recoiling in horror at the collapse of its neighbor.

Note to self.  When commisioning the over-the-top monument that will mark our final resting place (squirrels! monkeys! A little tree house!) don't skimp on the foundation.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Tree Shaped Tombstones - The Bohemian National Cemetery Part Two

More photos from the fabulous Bohemian National Cemetery.

"Occupational" designs on Tree Shaped Tombstones are always nice.  Here is an easy one:

Mr. Ostrovsky clearly worked for the streetcar company.  Now a slightly tougher one:

Was Mr. Mesce a carpenter or a stone mason?  The form of these tools is just a bit unfamiliar. 

Ready for a really tough one?  Like me you looked at this magnificent specimen and thought: Railroad Employee.

Look closer.  See the odd stuff going on at the front of the locomotive?

The sad story of Matej Sidlo was found in a 2010 edition of the Friends of the Bohemian National Cemetery newsletter.  Matej (Matthew in Anglicized version) was driving a beer delivery wagon that was hit by a train.  Those are kegs flying!  I must confess to being a little surprised that his family would chose to preserve this tragic memory in the permanence of stone.

Here's one that is probably not an occupational design.

I have seen a few of these around....once in France of all places.  Sure, the guy could have been a wheelwright or a teamster but these wheels always have a break in the top.  I suspect it is intentional imagery.  "May the Circle Be Unbroken" sort of sentiments.

Below is an odd little detail that I can't explain.  You sometimes see monuments with this network of holes drilled out.  It does not appear to be mimicing anything in nature.  I wonder if these were designed with the thought that flowers could be stuck into them?

It is always a treat to find an entirely new format for Tree Shaped Tombstones.  At Bohemian National I encountered a number of monuments with branches crossing up top.  I don't remember seeing this anywhere else.

A monument for Edward and Anna Hanzelin.

Anna does not look happy in this picture.

High arching branches.

Here is a very fancy version.  It actually has two uprights and a cross branch. 

One of the nicer, and larger, doves I have run across. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Tree Shaped Tombstones - The Bohemian National Cemetery Part One

The Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago Illinois was not a place I had been long aspiring to visit.  In fact, I had never heard of it until a friend of my wife's somehow mentioned that they were researching family genealogy and had an ancestor buried there.  As it happens we were going to be passing through a week later, and when a quick peek at Google Earth satellite view looked promising it was declared an official destination.

And it was well worth it.  It had more examples of Tree Shaped Tombstones than any other cemetery I had visited and some interesting variations and flourishes.

This was not a total surprise, I have seen enough photos of Chicago area monuments to know that the level of craftsmanship of their carvers was high.  And certain cultures such as the Bohemians just seem to have a bit more "flair" about their tombstones.  

Settle in for an extended visit.  If you like Tree Shaped Tombstones it will be well worth your time.

First of all, there are a lot of them.  I'm pretty sure I saw over a hundred in my incomplete dash through the place.  Here is a thicket of "Tree and Book" variants.

One of the first interesting things I discovered was that the Bohemians often put actual pictures of the deceased on the monuments.  These are rather clever, a photo printed onto porcelain, and have held up pretty well over a century or more.

On a visit of this sort I can't spend much time on identical monuments, even if they would have been the most interesting one in a lesser cemetery.  But I always do a quick scan of the base in search of a maker's mark.  You see these very rarely, I think I had found five before this trip. But in the Bohemian National Cemetery maker's marks were actually rather common.  You saw this one the most:

A. Heller probably had a shop nearby and may have even had some official status.  I have not found much information on him yet, even in the fascinating newsletter put out by the Friends of the Bohemian National Cemetery.

I must with regret note that the monuments I saw in such abundance did seem to be weathering more than usual.  Damp conditions, perhaps big city air quality.  So I can squint at this inscription and speculate on a different maker's mark but can't be sure.

Another interesting observation: Bohemians really like the "clasped hands" image for husband and wife monuments.  There were quite a few variants, some of them artistically delightful.

Interestingly the feminine hand seems to always be on the left.

My spouse was as usual being a good sport about all this, and hoping to get a few points in my oft overdrawn account I suggested to her that when I commission our own Tree Shaped Tombstone that it would be a nice touch to have clasped hands.  She said she did not care for them and that it reminded her of Cousin Itt from The Addams Family.

It became obvious quickly that there was too much here to cover in a single blog post.  Come back next time for more.  I confess, I am saving the good stuff!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Forgotten Brewery Caves - New London Wisconsin

Today lets swing through New London Wisconsin and a "maybe" Forgotten Brewery Cave. 

Below is a nice brick building along the river at 327 E. Wolf River Avenue.  It was built in 1876 as The City Brewery.  It appears to have diversified fairly early, producing both beer and soft drinks.  Later it was called the New London Bottling Works and made soft drinks exclusively. The enterprise seems to have gone under in the 1920s.  It is worth noting that they had local competition for a rather small market, the Knapstein Brewery was a slightly earlier business and was just a couple of blocks away.

The City Brewery is now an apartment building.  This limits the scope of possible exploration a bit.  In the front view above I suspect the stone ring is where an old well was located.  But for the enigmatic feature that caught my eye we need to stroll around to what is the back side of the building in the above view....

A much newer metal building on the left, the City Brewery on the right.  But what is that slanted structure that extends out onto the cement slab?

The only thing that makes any sense is a set of stairs going downwards and into "something" along side the brewery.  This would be the likely location for a storage cave.  The river lies to the back of this photo and there is nothing there that looks like a road access.  Behind me the land is level, no place to pull wagons in to load the kegs on.  I have seen similar layouts on Sanborn maps from other breweries where they have an elevator to bring the beer up.  Its a fine theory.  It is probably even correct.  But darn it all, here is a photo from 1973 that shows nothing at all useful.  

The later building does not show.  It is an appliance repair shop that seems to be only intermittently open.  The cement strip looks to be more of a patio than anything else, but I do note that it appears to be on a built up berm.

Something must have happened when the later pole barn structure was built.  I think when digging the foundations they ran into a long forgotten brewery cave.  And I bet those stairs go down into it.

Alas on a day when the TV repairman was not in and the apartment residents were all behind closed doors there was nobody to ask.  Put this in the category of "needs an update".  Anybody out there know more?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Last Stand

I am just back from a visit with my father in law.  He lives ten hours away and has been in declining health.  The visit was partly social, partly "it could be the last time", partly to get my retired but still somewhat helpful professional opinion on things.

The old gent is 94 and still living alone in an apartment.  He is just barely hangin' on, with bad balance, bad vision, bad hearing.

Two days of visits bookended by twenty hours of driving.  We probably had less than an hour of real conversation.

When he nodded off I would watch the vintage cowboy movies that he had on continuously, even though he can't see or hear much of them any more.  It was sound off for me as the system was plugged into his headphones.  But I got to where I could quickly figure out the stock characters.  School Marm.  Spunky Cow Girl.  Dance Hall Lady.  Square Jawed Hero.  Shifty Eyed Villain in a black hat.

Of course there were plenty of fist fights and six guns were regularly "blazing".  

Looking about the little apartment where he thought he would be spending his last days, and comparing it to the silent action on the big screen I realized that you don't always get to decide where you will make your Last Stand.

No matter how stubborn or strong you start out it is just not possible to anticipate certain things.  What parts of you will fail first.  Whether your spouse dies before you.  Just living to a ridiculous near century age.

I imagine he will be moving to Assisted Living soon.  The alternative is a likely fall, with the undignified death spiral that so often ensues after a broken hip.  Or even after a lesser injury.

This is not the way he would have wanted things, but you don't get to write the last pages of your life's script.

No, actually you can.  You just don't have any assurance that it will be followed......


It was late morning and the sun was bearing down with purpose on the little town square.  Mario was opening up his cafe for the day's trade, rearranging the chairs and tables jostled askew by the previous nights revelers.  

As always he stopped by the smallest table which was positioned to best catch the light while giving a pleasant view of the valley below.  He reached into his apron and pulled out the table's marker, a small silver badger.

Soon the American "friend of the house" would stir from the room he rented in the back.  It was a small space and he paid too much for it in Mario's opinion, but "il Vecchio Americano" said he would have no other.  He liked the fact that the rear wall was authentic Roman, once part of a grain warehouse according to the district archeologist.

Soon he would emerge for the day, always wearing black although his reasoning for this varied. Some days he would say he was still mourning his wife.  Others that he needed every bit of sun-warmth he could get in his old bones.  

Mario had a list of detailed instructions issued by Don Carlos, the old man's far away son who was reputed to be an Industrialist of considerable wealth and influence.  "Give him as much wine as he wants.  After his second glass start making him drink one water for each glass of vino della casa. If he ever fails to appear by me".

It was getting rather late for il Vecchio to turn up.  But he had been busy the day before.  He had spent the afternoon doing crosswords in both English and Italian and had stayed up until almost midnight celebrating with a wedding party.  He had told some stories of his long ago medical career that were new to Mario and had caused not only the bride but the groom to blush.

The Scicilian sun was now bright across the valley, highlighting the ruined aqueduct.  The Old Man always said it was a beautiful and evocative sight, although privately Mario wondered if those 94 year old eyes could make out much beyond light and shadow.  

It was almost noon now and Mario was, if not exactly worried, a bit curious.  Would this then be the day he would be calling Don Carlos?  The day he would open the envelope in the safe for a final set of instructions?

Perhaps.  Or perhaps not.  In any case there was a routine to be attended to.  The little silver badger was straighted to face the morning sun.  A fresh flower was put into the vase.  Breakfast, and the first glass of wine, could wait to see if they were needed today.