Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Civic Responsibility - 2018 version

We must be really civic minded here in Wisconsin.  We seem to have more elections than most places.  Today was a primary in advance of the upcoming mid terms.

So I voted.  I pretty much always do.  The drill is routine.  It's always the same place, a meeting room at the library.  Three of the four election judges are long time friends.  I sign my name.  I show my ID.  I vote. 

Then it is off to run errands.  At Target a talkative checkout clerk said he liked my sticker:


He said he thought that everybody should vote and started to tell me about his 18 year old sister who had difficulty voting despite having proper ID.  He did not get too far into the tale - I imagine it had something to do with current residency address - because he was after all ringing up my purchases.

Then he asked me for my ID.

I suppose I should have considered that he was kidding, although he seemed an earnest young sort who would have difficulty pulling off a subtle joke.  And it is also not wise to potentially annoy your customer base.

No, because I was buying a four pack of beer (Lazy Monk Citrus Heffeweisse!) he said that store policy required me to show ID.

So regarding the requirement to show identification I submit the question.  Was his sister, perhaps attending college or some such, more likely to be voting in the wrong district or am I perhaps more likely to be trying to purchase alcohol ahead of my 21st birthday?


I know, I know, he's just a guy doing his job.  But he is also a member of the young, upcoming generation who seems to find the concept of true irony incomprehensible.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Robot Orca

Our FIRST Robotics team is going to be in the town parade again.  It is a nice way to get "seen" and as our build HQ is right down town it is not too difficult logistically.

Last year we ran the competition robot and had it chase "ChairBot" around.  It was well received.  But this year two differences.

We are not running the competition machine.  Asphalt is rather hard on wheels and bearings.  So it will ride on a trailer.  And we are going to actually fit in with the theme of the parade which this year is "Under the Sea".

So we built a robot killer whale.

The basic frame.  The crank device near the back makes the whale's tail flip up and down.  The worrying red gas can holds 2.5 gallons of water.  The hose runs from the tank, which contains a small but powerful pump, so the Orca can spray water about ten feet up and ten feet backwards.



The electronics and mechanical work were pretty straightforward, this is a build crew of veterans.  Putting the covering over the wire frame required an artistic touch....well, they did a pretty good job.  The wire is garden fencing.  The fabric is thin sheets of foam usually used to protect machinery during shipping.  We also incorporated pipe from an earlier climbing frame and an early version control board built by my middle school robotics group with help from my high school team.


You can't see the tail well, it is clear plastic and will be painted along with the rest of the Orca.  But it looks reasonably whale like.


Here is Orcabot lined up for the parade.  Of course at the last minute various things decided to be difficult...


And here is one of the team members.  Old halloween costume parts just can't be passed up, even in 80 plus degree heat.


It would be unrealistic to imagine that a student project tossed together in a few hours would be perfect.  And Orca was not.  The tail flipper did not cooperate.  And the sizable tank of water was heavier than we figured based on half full trial runs.  With a brisk turn or two it came loose.  Good news....it did not tip over and drench the electronics.  Bad news...it disconnected the water spout.  But good news part two...it did not do so until after we passed the judges stand.

Looks like a fun campaign for the year ahead.  Lots of things that will work out.  Mostly.

Here's a short video of Orca.  It appears to be rotated 90 degrees.  Sorry, another minor glitch on a morning full of them.  Still pretty cool...


Friday, August 10, 2018

Polecat

Given my affection for under appreciated mammals and under used words it was just a matter of time before I got around to this one:  Polecat.



There is not even universal agreement on what a polecat is.  The cute critter seen above is a European polecat, also known as a black ferret.  But the term is also used on occasion to describe our old friend here in the US, the skunk.  They look a bit alike but are not actually related.

Polecat is an odd word, it combines cat, which is pretty self explanatory, with pole.  Pole is probably a variant of the French poule meaning poultry.  So a chicken eating catlike critter.  An alternative version would have its origins be related to another French word poulent, meaning "stinking".  While not as odoriferous as skunks these guys do have scent producing glands.  

The application of the European term polecat to the new black and white critter of North America was likely just a matter of early settlers, apparently Dutch, being somewhat unfamiliar with skunks and polecats.....yet knowing enough to not want to make a close up inspection!

Calling someone a polecat in the 21st century would seem to be a folksy, mild kind of insult.  It has about it a hint of hillbilly rascality.  But in earlier times this would be considered a grave insult, as polecat was a term used to describe promiscuous women. No less an authority that Shakespeare used it (in Merry Wives of Windsor):

   "Out of my door, you witch, you hag, you baggage, you polecat, you runyon!

Now lest you consider it an injustice that polecats have been given a bad reputation in such matters, well, they've earned it.  They actually are pretty aggressively promiscuous.  Rather like their close relatives, mink, who oddly are not responsible for another synonym for female promiscuity: Minx.

And if you further consider it an injustice that these terms are reserved exclusively for females, when there by definition must be promiscuous males involved, well there you do have an excellent point.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

That Meme I might have invented once......

I like to write.  I try to keep my banter interesting.  When I talk I sound about the same, although decades of spousal eyebrow raising has trained me to be a little "less" interesting in conversation.  Most of the time.  But it would still stand to reason that given enough years I would come up with some phrase - written or spoken - that would catch on as a commonplace saying....or a silly internet meme.

Well, maybe.

The movie Up is a marvelous piece of work.  Seeing it again recently I was reminded that it made popular the phrase "Cone of Shame" for the plastic collar that dogs are sometimes forced to wear.  But I was using this phrase long before the movie came out in 2009.  And I think, just maybe, I was the originator of the phrase Cone of Shame.

dug cone of shame GIF

Here's the case.

1. We had a Golden Retriever/Yellow Lab mix named Rosy whose life was unfortunate. Long story, but she had to wear The Cone often.  She lived from 1996 to 2008.  I have a very solid memory of calling the device The Cone of Shame in that time period.

2. The main creative mind behind Up is a certain Pete Docter.  While it is possible that some other writer was involved I assume it was Mr. Docter who put "Cone of Shame" into the script.

3. And.....there is a shaky connection between Mr. Docter and myself.

It involves my Aunt Connie.  She is a musician of considerable talent and the long time director of a Youth Symphony that Pete Docter was in.  I think Connie also taught him in music lessons and later had his two sisters in the Symphony.  So....does it work to imagine that Connie, on one of her visits to rustic Wisconsin, heard me use the phrase, then repeated it in the hearing of the highly creative Pete Docter?

Ah....the dates are so close, so very close.

Pete Docter was hired right out of college, starting at Pixar in1989. He wrote the first draft of Up in 2004. Of course he was living in California then. But did he come back and visit old friends?  And, I suppose we could toss in one additional link to the chain....I figure one of the younger siblings?  Or perhaps I was even using this phrase earlier than I remember, with our previous mutt Bezoar the Wonder Dog.     

Alas, I have to concede the possibility that the meme went the other way.  Could Connie have gotten it from her precocious young student and mentioned it to me?  I suppose I should credit what is plausibly the real origin of "Cone of Shame".  Pixar actually hired a veterinarian/animal behaviour expert to consult on the film.  Ian Dunbar sounds like he has a very interesting career and it is possible that he and I independently came up with the phrase.



Monday, August 6, 2018

A small corner of Flanders Fields

Flanders, that flat and much fought over portion of Belgium, is dotted with immaculate cemeteries like this one near Wytschaete.

The horrific losses of the Great War had a major impact on how the warring nations viewed their casualties.  In England particularly, the terrible harrowing of an entire generation of the Empire's best was sobering.  Even before the war had ended there were plans being made that turned into the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  One of the minds behind it was Rudyard Kipling, that most emphatic of Imperialists, whose only son, an 18 year lieutenant, lay dead in a lost and unmarked grave.

The cemeteries can be large or small.  Most are in rural locations as it was decided that the men should rest near where they fell.  In a radical move it was also decided that in death there would be no class distinctions. Officers and men all have the same grave stones.  Men from Britain and from all over the Empire rest together.  They are well maintained and humbling.


With that somber background I was rather unprepared to find this grave marker in this little cemetery near the Hill 80 dig.


The grave of a German corporal, one of 14 German graves among the total of 105.  One of the Germans was actually a sailor! 

So what gives?

German casualties were collected after the war and primarily buried in three large cemeteries dedicated specifically to that purpose.  But 1,105 Germans remain buried in 79 Allied cemeteries scattered across Belgium.  In many cases these casualties were men who died of their wounds while prisoners.  But In this cemetery, Torreken Farm Number One, all the German casualties died between April 10th and May 1st of 1918.  The German spring offensive started on April 9th and it seems that this existing Allied cemetery was in the captured territory and was simply used for new German casualties.

And how did a sailor end up as a casualty? 

That's a little harder to say.  There were sailors assigned to the German armies, they for instance operated the really big guns that were repurposed from naval projects once it became clear that long range ship construction was not a realistic option.  There were also "Marine Divisions" of German sailors assigned to holding the coastal portions of Belgium.  That seems fair, down near the sea Belgium was probably as much water as dirt, since the dike systems were destroyed in 1914 to slow the German advance.   

The grave marker for the sailor, Gottlieb Arndt, has the designation "Marine Howitzer Battery One" so I am assuming that he was a gunner assigned to land duty when victory at sea was no longer considered possible.

Bad feelings towards Germany were common after the World Wars, and may not entirely forgotten to this day.  So it is good to see that at least here and there a bit of common decency prevails. It would have been easy enough to disturb the rest of these German dead.  But it is not as if any of these young men had a part in the chain of bad decisions that made Flanders the site of four years of inhumane slaughter.

Friday, August 3, 2018

VFW Standing Guard

Many Veterans of Foreign Wars posts have military equipment parked out front.  Part decoration, part rememberance.  It is a tradition of long standing and there is a formal system by which the Post Commander can requisition obsolete gear.  The VFW Post in the tiny community of Lowell Wisconsin was especially well armed!



Howitzer, tank, jet fighter, looks like they are pretty well prepared.  In front of the tank is a ship's anchor.  On it is a plaque:


Often these memorials have some local connection but in this case, no.  The anchor is certainly not from the Dorchester which sank in the North Atlantic.  And none of the Four Chaplains appears to have any local connection.  But it is an important and little known story, one that is worthwhile to remember in any case.
---------
Odd historical footnote.  Jack Kerouac who would later write "On the Road" was a sailor on the Dorchester.  I've seen more than one account of why he was not on board at the time of her sinking.  The tale of his getting a last minute telegram inviting him to play football for Columbia University seems nonsensical.  More plausibly, the future Beat Generation writer appears to have been discharged for mental health issues.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Lost Sci Fi writer

It's fairly common in small towns to see murals on the side of buildings.  These are often a nice way to showcase little bits of local history.  This one on the side of an appliance store in Beaver Dam Wisconsin, is rather nicely done.

I really like early Science Fiction.  But I had never heard of Raymond Z. Gallun.  The mural shows a square jawed, steely eyed, cleft chinned man gazing resolutely into an amazing future.  


As you can tell from the fine print Gallun was born in Beaver Dam in 1911.  He enjoyed some success in the early days of Sci Fi, both in the "Pulp Era" of the 1920s and 30s and on into the so called "Golden Age" that began - depending on who you ask - either just before or just after the Second World War.

Gallun did not look anything like the guy on the mural.  


An early sketch...considerably less heroic looking

The mural is actually based on a cover of one of the early Sci Fi magazines that published Gallun's work.  The art on these was always creative, lurid and only vaguely connected to the content of the stories.  I've touched on this phenomena in a previous post.


I would love to say that my rustic wanderings tipped me off to an unrecognized genius; that I am now a devoted fan of this largely forgotten writer.  But to be honest the samples of his work I have come across in my research are.....not that good.

You can judge for yourself by a quick stroll here.  The "freesfonline" data base has some great stuff on it although it rather highlights the poverty of more modern Sci Fi.

Like all the early writers Gallun really "cranked 'em out", getting paid by the page.  His stories tend to be reworkings of earlier stories or archetypes.  In the hands of, say, his contemporary Isaac Asimov this can be spirited fun.  Gallun's take on the classic Western Frontier conflict of settlers versus outlaws seems pretty silly when set on a mining asteroid.  

Well Ray, rest in peace.  You lived long enough to see a lot of the early dreams of the pioneers - of the Sci Fi genre, not the asteroid farmer type - come true.