Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Scenes by the road less traveled. Part Two

Down the road a few miles we enter another little hamlet.  Lumberjacks used to float logs down the river that runs past it, but the community started out as a railroad junction in the late 1870s.  Later a road paralleled the rails and seems to have gone through the center of town.  In the modern era the busy highway is just close enough to disturb the silence of an abandoned main street.

Of the early rail heritage we have almost nothing, just the Ghost Carnival that I visited last year. 

This was once the busiest corner in town;
By 1910 the glory days of this place were probably already over, but it was an era when stubborn folks were still trying to create farms out of logged off timber land.  There was a lot of dynamite being used to blow up stumps back then. An old timer once told me that they had so much left over after World War One that they gave it away at the County Extention office.  You just had to sign for it!

The building above seems to have had three lives.

Little banks like this lived and died on the economic health of their towns.  They probably did OK in the teens and twenties, but the Crash of '29 must have put them under.  Next up:

The top of the sign is not very legible but does indicate that this became some sort of store.  The ghost sign says "Occident Flour  Costs More-Worth It".  Small town grocery stores hung on a little longer, folks do have to eat after all.  But in the next active incarnation the building becomes home to:
And I think this is the end of the line for the place.  You can see in some of the above pictures that there are still stacks of sheet metal and tools inside, but the door is padlocked and shows no sign of being opened in recent times.  I imagine it could have another life left in it, but some of the brickwork appears to be crumbling, and flat roofs are notoriously susceptible to the ravages of weather in our part of the world.

Next up: A jackpot of Americana

Monday, February 27, 2012

Scenes by the road less traveled. Part One.

My "home page" picture for this blog shows me with a couple of my digging pals in the spring of 2010.  We are proudly standing on a monumental section of Roman roadway we had just spent a week uncovering.  The Romans were very intent on keeping roads right where they put them.  This particular bit of paving stones was put into place in 213 AD and probably remained in use until around 500 AD.  Oh, and three feet deeper down was an earlier road that took it back another century.  They liked continuity.

A "sandal-level view" of our road.  Not bad after 18 centuries, barbarian invasions and modern plowing.

Things are different in America.  We quickly construct transportation systems-canals, then railroads, then highways, then superhighways-and then more or less abandon them.

These vestiges of earlier transportation systems are mostly still there, and are a great place to search for artifacts of earlier times. 

On a recent trip home after working out of town I photographed some good stuff.

This is an early gas station.  It stands alongside what is actually a fairly well traveled road , but is in a tiny little hamlet.  There are modern gas stations a few miles in either direction, so in an era when folks never even slow down for wide spots in the road it clearly went under many years ago.
Here's a side view.  I took this picture on a crisp winter morning that smelled of wood smoke from nearby houses.  The brick chimney, which seems to have a nasty lean to it, indicates a probable wood stove here as well.  Gasoline and a wood burning stove just seem like a bad mixture.

It is difficult and even a little depressing to imagine somebody here working a lonely night shift.  Over the doorway would have been a single glowing bulb indicating that the place was open.

Well there's something you don't see every day.  A gas station with a stone foundation.  Actually stone and cement, but not substantively different from the foundations of some of the flimsier buildings I helped excavate in the civilian settlement outside the Vindolanda fort.
Sometimes I try to figure out the story of a place by the clues left behind.  The gas pumps have been gone from this old station for a long time, and the paint has not been redone for at least a decade.  But out back there were some fairly un-rusted barrels that seemed to contain old auto parts, and what I think to be a modern fuel container.  My guess is that after it stopped being a real gas station it became somebody's mechanic shop.  In this it was probably less useful than a conventional garage, as I could not see and service bay or other means to work on things in bad weather.

Come back Wednesday, I'll show you some more things from down the road a stretch.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

With their boots off

Life in the ER is a thing of many parts.

Of course there is the dramatic stuff, major trauma, saving lives and so forth.  That's why we have an Emergency Room, and when all elements of the system are working as they should it is an impressive thing to behold.

Then there is the mundane stuff, colds, ear aches, minor injuries.  I did this for a quarter century before switching to ER, so this is second nature.  It can be enjoyable, I have many interesting conversations while awaiting test results or putting in nice neat stitches.  And the younger kids are always fun.  As you can see from the occasional photo I allow, I rather resemble a comic pirate and can play that role with Shatnerian subtlety when appropriate.

But there is also the difficult-perhaps insoluble-set of problems.  And the hardest is the Failing Parent.

It is mid 80s Mom, or less often Dad.  They are almost always brought in by a daughter or daughter in law.  Sometimes the superficial issue is clear cut-a fall with a major fracture for instance-but more commonly it is for vague issues.  Weakness, confusion, medication errors, or "just not right".

If things are overly busy, or if you are distracted, you can easily miss the cues.  A minor skin tear that only needs a band aid for instance.  But the real issue, the often unspoken issue, is that the Failing Parent can't be at home any longer.  This is hard.  Not all that hard for the elderly patient, often they are not fully grasping the situation and sometimes they are more than ready for a change.  But hard for the "child" who is facing the first concrete evidence of that hardest of Losses. 

And for society is is damnably hard.

We lack a system of easy transition from home to Alternative (even out of work mode I have a hard time speaking the phrase Nursing Home).  There is paper work to fill out.  There is funding, such as it is, to arrange.  And there is even a ridiculous Medicare rule that says that for Nursing Home admission you must first stay three days in the hospital.  Why?  This is an artifact of a medically ancient time when we often had people in for "rests and tests".  I have shipped out a person with an acute heart attack and had them stop by to say thanks two days later, their coronary angiogram and stents all accomplished in under 48 hours!

So the Hobson's choice is to either be strict, and to deny admission when there is no specific illness or malady, or to find various ways to tip toe around.  If you do enough testing you will usually find something.  Is that potassium a little low?  Might that chest x ray have just a shadow of pneumonia?  No doubt this gentle subversion of the system saves individuals-I live in fear of sending an oldster home and seeing them back next shift with a hip fracture-but the collective fiscal impact on our poor medical system is huge.

It gets surreal sometimes.  During a raging blizzard a stylishly dressed daughter home from the big city for the holidays.  Mom had been let out of a Nursing Home a week before.  Now there was vague weakness, an increase in anxiety, a fearfulness to try and use the walker.  Could I arrange admission to a Nursing Home?  Not the one she had been in, she did not like that one.  How about one in a nearby town?  Yes, the one her sister was in.  And could I arrange a private room?

It's funny and sad and frustrating and time consuming and impossible.  It throws a huge monkey wrench into the usually well running ER machinery.  Other patients wait longer.  We never solve it in a satisfactory fashion.

We are living longer.  Better in some ways but against the life saved by preventing a fatal heart attack at 50 we have to acknowledge the unhappy twilight world of a 90 year old with Alzheimer's, dignity fallen, unaware and incontinent.  We no longer have large families that stay close to home.  That tireless saint of a daughter or daughter in law of a bygone era is now a bank vice president.  Or perhaps not, the hardest situations of all are where mental health and substance issues strike across multiple generations.  When parents age, especially when one dies and leaves the other, there is no sufficient safety net.

So we soldier on as best we can.  In half serious moments I wonder if we need a sort of Isomeric Boy Scouts where a younger, fitter scout master is in charge of a troop of elders.  They would help each other out, go on camping trips.  Maybe there would be merit badges.  No s'mores at the campfire though, a nice glass of single malt please.

Unless and until some happy variant of such appears I vow to never personally reside in a Nursing Home for a single day. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Middle School Robotics Project-Chapter Three

Spring approaches, and it seems as if the robotics classes are more chaotic now.  The kids are still getting a fair amount done, and some are quite good at independent work.  But the noise level and the need to put the kibosh on middle school goofing around are both higher than ideal.  So my photos are going to seem a bit haphazard today.

This project is going to have a semi-humanoid final look.  So I thought we would try having the machine pivot at the "waist" between two modules.  This is a low speed, high torque gear motor that I got in a bulk lot.  It was off some kind of automation machinery.  The big silver gear on the top is one of many, many parts I have been using from an elaborate power wheelchair that I was given years ago for robotic parts.  I told the good folks that donated it that my robotics projects are sort of like the Native Americans and the buffalo....eventually we find a way to use everything from the snout to the tail.

The upper module of the swivel section...

Upper and lower modules of the swivel section.  The gear motor will drive a pulley attached to the bottom of the upper section.  You will note a lot of two by four sections in use.  These are scrapped from an earlier incarnation of the small robot arena....I have been keeping them around for ten years looking for a use!  One of the things that slows our progress of late is that we have no shop access.  The only power saw I trust middle schoolers with is wimpy enough that cutting two by fours with some precision is a slow process.

An M&M dispensing device.  Solid work by a student who can build things without my constant supervision.  I did help with the testing.  As reliability is important this needs to be done until I have had enough M&Ms.  More on this in the weeks to come.
You need somebody who can look at the above and see circuits instead of spaghetti.  I am lucky this time to have two lads who appear capable at wiring the electronics.  At least they can figure out when things do not work, and that is the first step to understanding why they don't.  Here is one of my electronics guys down in the guts of the drive module.  One speed controller for each side of wheels, with the third one for the swivel motor. 

Off next week for spring break.  Three more official sessions to go before "show time".

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

He's Dead Jim

As a literary device attending one's own funeral has some real possibilities.  Certainly Mark Twain (probably cribbing a little from The Odyssey) got some good mileage out of this in Huck Finn.  But take it from me, it is not as funny as you might think.

Permit me to explain.

When I started practicing medicine in a medium sized town in Wisconsin some years back there was a fellow with the same name in the next town over.  Same first name.  Same rather uncommon last name.  He was even called "Doctor" by many although he was a Chiropractor and I an MD.  We differed only in our middle initial.

Not surprisingly we sometimes got our mail mixed up, an occasional nuisance that our respective office staffs managed efficiently.  By all accounts he was a nice enough fellow, or so said the numerous patients that we had in common. 

I guess he had a few more difficulties in life.  He had a heart attack at a young age and for a while some peripheral acquaintances asked sincerely about my health.  Tragically his wife died, and I got several cards of condolence.  I forwarded them on.

But his life did improve, or so I inferred from the airline tickets that arrived in my mail one day, indicating that I was going to California with a woman whose name I did not recognize.  My wife did not recognize it either. And you may be assured, she asked a few pointed questions on this topic.

And then one day he died.

Reading an obituary with your own name in the big black type is not funny in the least.  It makes you realize that your continued residency of this world is by no means certain.  Reading over the list of things he had done, organizations he belonged to, etc was also a bit humbling, although to be fair Chiropractors are famed for joining lots of civic groups.  Not being on call probably gives them more time for that sort of thing.

It reminded me that it might be wise to do a rough draft of my own obituary so that my family does not need to muddle through with some sort of generic boilerplate should my demise be unexpected.  I will put that on my to do list.

At least my alter ego had a decent picture with his obituary, sparing my family the descent of concerned well wishers bearing Casseroles of Condolence. 

Also on my to do list: set aside a really outstanding picture of myself.  Ideally doing something exotic and fun.

Preferably wearing a great hat.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tree shaped tombstones. A minor mystery.

I am not planning on needing one any time soon, but I do look at tombstones.  In our local cemeteries there are quite a few in the shapes of trees, and I find them visually rather appealing.

Some are small.

Others more substantial.  Notice the chopped off branch, which seems to be a recurring theme emphasizing the transience of life.

There's just a lot happening here.  We have leaves, ropes, an anchor, an unrolled scroll, a banner that reads "In Peace".  Really rather impressive when you realize that these were not cast out of cement but were actually carved from limestone.

Sometimes the tree themed grave markers occur in groups as with this poignant assemblage.  We have the huge main "family tree", again with the chopped off branches.  And a series of little stacks of logs and sticks.  They seem very sad.



This one was the saddest of the whole bunch.  A few feet away from the other children's tombstones and of a different style.  It has two lambs on the top.  On one side is "Little Frankie".  There was another name on the other side, so probably the resting place of a set of premature twins.  Infant mortality was a cruel but commonplace thing generations ago.

There are plenty of other little details on these arboreal monuments if you take the time to look closely at them.

A book, presumably the Bible.

A dying dove.

At first glance this one looks fairly standard issue.  But just to make sure you caught the symbolism of the lopped off branches...

In a casual stroll through the cemetery I got dozens of photos, with a bewildering array of flowers, vines, ropes and other motifs.  But what I did not get was a clear sense of why these interesting monuments were used.

I had read that they were used as grave markers for members of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization along the lines of the Elks and so forth.  Founded in 1890, they did indeed put up distinctive tree themed gravestones for their members up until the 1920s when the costs became prohibitive.  So the dating of the tombstones I found fits, most were late 1890s up to about 1910.  But there are some features missing....

This would be a more typical "Woodmens" tree tombstone.  It has their seal and their Latin motto.  Simpler versions would just say W.O.W. or have other identifying attributes such as an axe or a maul and wedge.  The one example I have with an axe shows it with a broken handle, which I have never seen on a Woodmen tombstone.

Several of the specimens I photographed actually had Masonic emblems on them, which would also seem to make an association with a rival fraternal organization unlikely.

Hence the mystery.  If there was no link to the Woodmen's organization, why are there significant numbers of these tree tombstones?  I suppose they are nice enough stylistically to be popular, but it would seem to be an expensive purchase.
Update November 2014.  The Tree Shaped Tombstone topic has expanded into dozens of postings. If the subject interests you click on the relevant topic header on the right side of the page!

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Job between High School and College

The debate goes on.  Is the major influence on children genetic or environment?  Growing up as one of four boys in a household with somewhat limited parental oversight I have been inclined to the "environment" argument.  In some ways I grew up fast.  In part this was because my parents sent me off to kindergarten at age four. 

Before they got permission to do this-an unusual action back then and probably illegal today-they had to take me to the HQ of the school district.  There was some testing involved.  The part I remember was this:

On the desk of the Inquisitrix was a box full of square crayons.

Question:  "Why are the crayons square?"

Pint Sized Me: "So that they fit in the box better."

This was considered close enough.  Decades later I learned that kindergarten crayons are square so that they do not roll off the table as easily.

This is all just preamble, a way of explaining how I was always the youngest person in my class, and how I ended up at age 17 working as a drudge at a YMCA camp in Northern Minnesota.  Which became yet another in a string of experiences I was tossed into before I was really ready, and had to muddle along as best I could.

I washed more dishes that summer than the rest of my life combined.  I had a huge bug fogger that I used to spray billowing poison gas attacks not seen since Verdun. I operated the indoor BB gun range.  I trapped mice.  I drove around on my riding lawn mower.

Oh, there was also the obligatory brief summer camp staff romance.  And with the drinking age being only 18 at that time, a few cans of mediocre 1970s beer were consumed with minimal adverse effect.

There was always a day and a half between camp sessions, an idylic 36 hours where we staffers had the place to ourselves.  Once, and for reasons that entirely escape me, a bunch of us all started speaking in British accents and decided that we would have a gopher safari. 

We all had titles, General so and so, Lord this and that.  We had pith helmets.  And we had BB guns.  An unfortunate striped varmit was dispatched, and trussed up by the legs on a long pole.  We paraded it past the Camp Director saying:

"Oh, Colonel Murphy!  The little Blighter has bought it entirely!"

Poor Murph, he was just a slightly older college student, probably also tossed into a situation he was not ready for.  But a good sport he, shaking his head and smiling.

I did not tell my sons these stories.  There would have had to have been some editing involved early on, and later they would have found them boring.  But going down the list:

Son number one:  four years as a YMCA camp counselor.  Various camp romances.  No safaris, but he did become something of a dodgeball demigod.

Son number two: four years and counting of being maintance jack of all trades at a camp.  Unlike me, when he showed up at age 16 he hauled along his toolbox and welder, asking them what they needed fixed and/or built.  Such talent is not wasted washing dishes.

And Son number three.  Just 18 he is in the closing months of High School.  The academic regimen becomes, well, a little less rigorous.  One of the classes he is taking is some kind of Outdoor Skills nonsense.  And among other things he has to obtain a squirrel for taxidermy.

Here is the young subaltern preparing for the safari.

I guess genetics does have something to do with things.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Worst Job

I think it was the summer of 1975.  Yes, that feels about right based on the people I was working with and the economic times.  There was a recession on, and jobs were scarce.

Somehow I and a couple of pals ended up working for a guy who had a bunch of ice cream trucks.  I don't recall the name of the business, we all just called it Bomb Pop City. 

The garish, multicolored "Bomb Pop" was supposed to be the signature frozen confectionary of the fleet.
Nasty stuff, I actually ate one once.  Among other aesthetic issues the melting synthetic syrup flowed down the channels between the ridges.  They were messy by design.  We also had conventional popsicles and so forth.  But no ice cream sandwiches, which later caused a minor dust up.

The proprietor of Bomb Pop City was a crook.  He had all of us drivers sign a closely printed contract that made us independent contractors who bought our products from him and drove his trucks.  We were paid part of what we brought in, with a large chunk of our money being held back to successful completion of the entire summer season.  Leave early and say adios to your bonus money.

And a lot of people did just that.  The owner of the business was paranoid and twitchy.  He was said to be using the business to launder money from his real business as a drug dealer.  He was also said to keep a machine gun in his office somewhere.  Sometimes I guess he would just sit in his office and cry for no reason.

Our main source of gossip along these lines was May, his impossibly beautiful secretary.  She was a good person who vaguely disapproved of the shifty goings on, and unwound from the stress of dealing with her boss by going home each night and having a glass of wine and a joint.  There was no romantic attachment going on in the back office.  In fact May eventually took a shine to an implausibly naive and innocent young driver.  She would take him home for several days at a time, returning him tired, stunned but probably incrementally less naive.

We drove a fleet of former US Postal Service mail trucks, repainted white and with lurid pictures of Bomb Pops on the side.  They were outfitted with freezers and with little PA systems that played a continuous loop of gentle jingling music intended to draw in the sugar craving tykes like a magnet. 

In addition to the contract there were various other aspects to the business that smelled funny.  There was one very poor neighborhood in Minneapolis.  Lots of housing projects.  Area 7, as I recall it being designated, was off limits to all other drivers, awaiting the return several weeks late of a legendary driver from previous years.  Lets call him Jim Snark.  Jim would pull in ridiculous amounts of money.  Double what any other driver pulled in.  Of course he was ripping off poor people who had insufficient access to real stores where you could get ice cream much cheaper.  Boss held Mr. Snark up as the ideal driver, chiding us for our lesser take.

May let on that the Boss was sifting through all the coins we hauled in, seperating out the silver.  This was shortly after the transition to the cheap copper sandwich fiat coinage we now use.  Silver coins were much prized, and would be worth even more now.  Tipped off, we drivers started to cull through the day's haul ourselves, replacing all the old silver coins.  Sometimes there would be a whole handful, and we suspected that kids raided dad's sock drawer when they heard the Pied Piper bells of our trucks.

We always got asked if we had ice cream sandwiches.  Well, no we had none, as the Boss did not stock them.  A couple of us renegade drivers figured that, being independent contractors and all, we should just stock a few.  Our own little side line if you will.  And so much better morally and legally than whatever the Boss was selling on the side.

Oh my goodness, the day he found an ice cream sandwich wrapper on the grounds of Bomb Pop City.  He went ballistic. 

Summer wore on.  The sock drawers had been cleansed of loose coin and the weather turned cool and damp.  And there was still a recession on.  So with ice cream sales dropping I quit a few weeks ahead of the date that would get me my bonus money.  Actually I think the official bonus date was September 15th, which would make it impractical for most of the college student drivers.  Gee, I wonder if that was a coincidence.

I thought the contract was a little vague in places, so I eventually contacted the State Labor Department.  They knew the Boss well.  Very well in fact.  In a rare instance of bureaucratic prowess some sort of action was undertaken, and around Christmas I got my bonus check from Bomb Pop City.  I practically burnt rubber driving to the bank to cash it.

The Boss didn't tell us much about himself, and May would only drop a few anecdotes after a drink or two.  But there was a seedy mid 30s mechanic who worked on the trucks.  Nice fella, but I got the distinct impression that he was an ex-con, and that he and the Boss had some, er, institutional acquaintance.

Years later when I was in Med School I happened to read in the paper that the one time Czar of Bomb Pop City had been convicted of counterfeiting twenty dollar bills, and was heading for Federal Prison.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentines Day Algorithms

Spouse has been running a fine series of vintage valentines over on her side of the digital household.  Lotsa cupids, arrows, pink stuff. Here, take a look.

I have had a little different month of February.  In my professional capacity I have to maintain certification in an entire bowl of alphabet soup.  Such as:

BLS-Basic Life Support.  You need this before you can take:
ACLS-Advanced Cardiac Life Support.

But since the ER sees more than just cardiac cases I also need:
ATLS-Advanced Trauma Life Support, and:
PALS-Pediatric Advanced Life Support.

Optional, but one I do anyway is:
CALS-Comprehensive Advanced Life Support.

At least as I no longer deliver babies (oh, one or two ER stories notwithstanding), I don't feel such a need to keep up with:

NALS-Newborn Advanced Life Support, and:
ALSO-Advanced Life Support for Obstetrics.

In any case, by virtue of some scheduling glitches I am doing BLS, ATLS and ACLS over the course of a two week span.

So I am certainly thinking about pink hearts and such, but I have been studying so much that the imagery starts to turn into this:
And all the woes of broken hearts, of heart aches, of heartfelt sorrows?  All can be dealt with in a straightforward fashion.  Here ya go:

Yes, yes, these are hardly "mushy" Valentines Day sentiments, but in my feeble defense I should say that when Spouse and I were first dating I was in Medical School and studied with fervor and intensity.  One time I was so focused that I almost did not notice that somebody had tossed a Hostess Fruit Pie in my open second story window!

Monday, February 13, 2012

My First Job

When you get to a point in life where demographics suggest that you have more road behind you than ahead of you it changes your perspective.  In my case it has caused me to adopt a policy of seriously contemplating my working life every five years.  This is an admittedly dangerous process, but does bring back memories of jobs past.  For instance my recent rolling the odometer over to 55 made me remember my first real job.

I was 16.  I got a job at a fast food joint.  No, not one of the big chains, but at a now extinct one called Red Barn.
To this day I can recall most of the mediocre menu.  The Barn Buster.  The Big Barney.  Whatever that nasty fish sandwich was that nobody ordered.  I also have burned into my cerebral cortex the only successful ad that the chain ever seemed to have.  It featured dancing Muppet-like creatures singing:

"When the Hungries hit, when the Hungries hit, hit the Red Barn..."

This sort of pitch seemed to primarily appeal to pot heads for whom "The Munchies" and "The Hungries" were closely related concepts.  I have a vivid memory of serving up an order for one shaggy haired fellow with drowsy eyes.  I gave him his bucket of fried chicken, then his large soda.  I asked him:

"Would you like a lid with that?"

His answer:

"Man, would I ever."*

It was not a great job, but I had no baseline for comparison.  The chain overall was not well managed, and had been sold off a couple of times in the early 1970s.  Our particular branch was not doing all that well either, thanks to a McDonalds that had opened down the street a ways.  Oh, and the Assistant Manager apparently had gotten one of the counter gals in a family way, so there was an undercurrent of gossip and angst.

But what the heck.  I was earning a princely salary of $1.62 per hour, and if I worked closing I could take home any left over fried chicken and some kind of nasty deep fried apple thing. 

From the lofty pinnacle of my current age I look back and marvel.  I was at the time going to high school across town.  I would work closing at the Red Barn, head over to the house of some friends of my folks and spend the night.  I got up before they did, leaving some now cold-n-greasy chicken as compensation for the available sofa. 

Living on greasy left overs.  Being away from home for days on end.  Did I even bring a change of clothes with me?  Memories are slippery things.  But was I really that much on my own at 16?

Coming soon:  My Worst Job

*In that antediluvian time "a lid" was some kind of amount in which marijuana was sold.  I have not heard the term in decades, but for all I know it is still current.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Memorable ER Quote


"Oh, I've been stabbed, mmmm, five different times.  The first couple of times are the worst."

Eighteen months later he had to amend that opinion.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Middle School Robotics Project-Chapter Two

We have had two sessions so far, and things are taking shape.

We are starting at the bottom, with the drive module.  This involves:
Soldering.  Here we are rigging two Barby Jeep gearboxes to run together.

Wheels need to have hubs attached.  The tough plastic of the airport cart wheels stripped out the clutch on my cordless screwdriver.

Attaching wheel/gearbox pairs to the base.

Drive module being hauled out to the hallway for test driving.

Top view showing the battery and electronics in place.  The drive module works pretty well.  As the final machine is going to be fairly heavy we parked one of the smaller sixth graders on top and drove him around a bit. 

A hint of the final proportions of the project.....

It will actually be a bit taller than this.  All the tubes and such in the upper modules are just supplies we have not put to use yet.

Various other subsystems are also starting to come into focus.

It is always the little things that pester....middle schoolers do not have strong hand grips, so crimping connectors is not easy for them.  And working with only hand tools there are a variety of mechanical things that are impractical, so I have to fab a few adaptors and such on my lathe at home.

Off next week for parent teacher conferences, so Chapter Three in two weeks.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dewey World

Although the show slipped a bit in its final couple of seasons Malcolm in the Middle was one of the most creative things on television in its prime.  Or maybe it just seemed like it as it depicted two beleaguered parents trying to keep three difficult sons on the straight and narrow.  Just like us.

The youngest son was Dewey, a mischievous little imp who seemed to spend a lot of time inhabiting his own private world where everything was happy.

Sometimes to this day when I get crabby about unspecified annoyances of life Spouse orders me into Dewey mode.
In fact, I am living in Dewey World right now.
Dewey: Mom, can I have a story?
Lois: Once upon a time, there was a little boy that made his mom so crazy she decided to sell him to a circus.
Dewey: An evil circus?
Lois: No, a nice one with monkeys.
Dewey: Thank you.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hideous Robotic Carnage

As promised, scenes from the Machines Behaving Badly tournament.  The footage is a bit uneven, as an experiment we had "arenacams" mounted inside the cage and operating automatically.  Dean H. spliced the footage together.  Next time we add sound!

 Here Carl and The Beast Within show how much mayhem can be generated by $15 worth of servos and an old Barbie Jeep gearbox.....

In this match "Ellion" loses her demonic head, and The Complication demonstrates something of a design flaw.....
And antweight (one pounder) fight.  Very well matched, good driving by both lads.  Some find pushing matches less exciting, but with the arena hazards turned up to 24 volts disaster is always just inches away....

In any event, the full video archives of the Robotterdammerung can be found at:

Middle School Kids with Killer Robots....what could possibly go wrong?

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Big Demotion-when Dogs become Dogs.

When I took up the life of a free-lancer a few years back the results were almost all happy ones.  One of the few down sides to it is that frequent absences make it impractical to own a dog.  I love dogs.  Perhaps in my writing it shows just a little.

When people remember their best dog ever it is about an even split between some beloved childhood pet and the first dog you have together as a young couple.  The first case is obvious, the second requires just a little explanation.

The first dog you have as a young couple is your "practice child".  We talk to these dogs a lot.  We are interested in their growing up.  We scoop up droppings.  These are all excellent parent training exercises and make for a pet that is fully integrated into the nuclear family.

And then the first child turns up.  Overnight your dog becomes just a dog.  They realize it on some level.  You see them peering up mournfully from the floor, the new sounds, sights and-oh my goodness-the smells all a mystery beyond the canine ken.  Dogs being practical sorts just sigh, inwardly or audibly and await the eventual barrage of tossed foodstuffs from the high chair.

One of my neighborhood dog pals is facing this transition.  Buck up Haley!
One slight advantage dogs have in the competition for attention...they are never embarrassed by anything:

Sorry, it was the only photo of Haley in full costume that turned out!

Closer to home our eldest son and his fiance now have a dog.  Meet Bruce.

Peering out the window at Haley, who never gave him the time of day.

Bruce should keep the kids busy for a few more years.

Spouse and I of course had our "practice child" dog.  Great mutt she was.  She was a constant companion to my wife during residency and many nights on call.  After her passing we had a local artist do a painting of Bezoar the Wonder Dog.  It hung in my office for years.

Now the world can be a funny place.  When this painting was commissioned we had a baby, our number three son.  And the artist had a daughter about the same age.  In small town America it is hardly surprising that they eventually met, a bit more surprising that they have become very good friends.

But not ready for dog ownership any time soon.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Middle School Robotics Project. Chapter One

The Advanced Robotics class tends to be a little less frenetic than the combat robotics class.  I have a group of 8 students.  We meet once a week for roughly two hours and barring weather cancellations for seven sessions.

It is always interesting how much and how little you can accomplish with 14 hours of build time.  Middle school kids, I'm saying eighth grade boys in particular, become very distractable as soon as the first signs of spring appear.

So starting today there will be updates more or less weekly, allowing for spring break and a few other schedule glitches.

As it might be fun to guess at what we are building I will just show progress week to week, and not give away too much on the final combined project!

The basic framework will be a bunch of these.  They are old style metal milk crates.  One issue I had encountered in years past was the difficulty of too many kids working in the same general area.  So I got the bright idea to use these and have modular units.  I think spouse hauled them home from a thrift sale and paid a buck or two apiece for them.

Most of what I will be using for this project is "off the shelf" from my workshop.  Heck, I could have done the whole thing with materials in hand but sometimes it is nice to not have to adapt and kludge every component.  So a took a trip to Axman, my favorite surplus store.  These are really great wheels, apparently from airport luggage carts.  Solid, really good bearings.  And for $3.50 each I consider them a steal.  Total Axman bill will be my expenses for the project....$38.

I want this project to be eye catching, so there will be lots of flashing lights.  LED safety light flashers from Axman at $3.95 each.  We will be running everything off of 12 volt main power, so I will have the kids playing around with:

DC voltage regulators.  These are really cheap on ebay.  This one has a built in voltmeter, but the version without this is about four bucks, and we can just read the output voltage with my multimeter.  At this price when somebody hooks the power in backwards and fries one (that would be me when I was playing around a bit with one) it will be no great loss.
This is my "standard" control system set up as pulled off of my recent 4H project.  Vex receiver and microprocessor, two Victor 884 12 volt speed controllers, buss bars left and right for positive and negative power.

And we're up and running.....