Monday, April 30, 2012

An Odd Couple in the Diggers Shed

Noticed a couple of years back in the excavators shed at Vindolanda.  This is where we take our tea breaks.  I suspect the odd pairing of these two cleaning products would not seem strange in all cultures, but here in the States it brought back some headache inducing flash backs to The Village People.

(With apologies for the mild political incorrectness, but weren't the Village Peeps basically an exercise in self satire?)

On second thought, maybe no apology really required.  If you needed any example of gay people who were truly excellent individuals just look up the hill where the Wall of the (probably gay) Emperor Hadrian still stands!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

An Existential Tattoo!

In the ER you see a lot of tattoos.  It is a combination of a certain, shall we say reckless demographic along with the professional necessity of exposing body surfaces to bright and unforgiving lighting.

Some are OK.  Some are not.

My advice to anyone considering a "tatt" is that they should never be on an area you can't cover for a job interview, and that they should never contain antibody's name besides "Mother".  I mean, lets be realistic; on the off chance that Dezdeemoanah does you wrong and ditches you, just how long do you imagine it will take to find another woman with this name.  And as you contemplate this soberly (another rule for tattoos) remember that current technology will confine your search to this solar system, and there might not be a second specimen contained within it.

My objections to tattoos are several. 

1. Practical.  Your success in life will be constrained by going around with "Jack Daniels" on one wrist and "Mr. ZigZag" on the other.  There are only so many jobs in head shops.

2. Chronological.  Tattoos are forever, barring expensive phasering or ridiculous over tatts.  One of the myriad reasons I am not planning on a single day of residence in a Nursing Home is this; withered, wrinkly arms encircled by those barbed wire tribal tatoos....pumping feebly in the air as the Activity Director plays vintage Rock-n-Roll 3D sensofields.  Corrugated skin with faded ink, the addled gomers with wispy mullets croaking "Free Birrrrdddd...."

Sorry for that image.

3. Monotony.  It is amazing how often youthful rebellion is expressed in such conventional, repetitious ways.

But I do see a few tattoos that catch my eye.  A few I even approve of.  Anchors and Marine bulldogs in remembrance of loyal service to country are impossible to dislike.

Recently I saw one that stopped me in my tracks.  There in brilliant colors on the backside of a young lady who already had cause to regret it was a tattooed quotation for Friedrich Nietzche, 19th century Existential Philosopher.

No, not "God is Dead", his other famous quip "That which does not kill me makes me Stronger".

Ooof.  I guess she does not need to look at it all the time, but isn't that a little like going through life with a permanent "Kick Me" sign taped to you?

There are a lot of websites that show unfortunate tattoo decisions.  Some are too horrible to link to.  Others are more making fun of the people than the artwork, this seems mean. 

But THIS is worth a quick look, and will induce more wonder than nausea.  But don't go past the first page, trust me.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Please, No Halo for this Gamer

You hear some odd calls over the police scanner.  We always keep it running in the background in the ER.  It is the best way to get early warning on accidents and other things that we may need to gear up to handle.

The other night there was a call that got me thinking.  Apparently a mother in a town fifty miles away had become aware that her son was talking about suicide.....on X Box Live. 

I had to look this up, but apparently this is an online multiplayer gaming thing, with extra features such as chat.  It will connect you to Facebook and Twitter and YouTube.  You can appear as whatever avatar you like.

The police went out and could not find the individual where he was thought to be. No avatars were sighted either.

So many questions.

Was mom also gaming?  Perhaps there are families out there in which Super Mario is enjoyed by several generations.

How did the police know where to look?  I seem to recall that getting together in somebody's basement for multiplayer gaming is the norm.  And there are lots of young people living in lots of mom and dad basements these days.  The internet is everywhere.

How do you judge the seriousness of suicidal talk in a "gamer universe".  It is customary in most of these addicting alternate realities to have multiple "lives".  Meaning you can die a few times with no adverse effects.

I hope this was all a misunderstanding of some sort.  There was no obvious follow up so I shall never know.

But I just keep wondering.  When young people spend so very much of their time and energy in these alternate, virtual their lives there matter more than their life here?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Memorable ER Quote four

So here we have an older fellow who has partially sawed off his thumb with a table saw.  He unwrapped the hand towel he had duct taped around it so that I might have a look.

Me: "When did this happen?"

Codger: "Yesterday morning."

(long pause)

Me: "Ah, you're a single fella, aren't you?"

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Memorable ER quote-three

A patient with facial burns.

Me: So, you use oxygen at home?

Patient: yep.

Me:  And, did they tell you shouldn't smoke with the oxygen on?

Patient:  Uh, yep.

Me: I guess they really meant it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Talking to myself in the Emergency Room

Having spent my entire adult working life in medicine I have gotten used to there being quite a few rules.  Some of them are appropriate and improve the care of patients.  Others are silly, and make patient care more cumbersome.  The latter are to be subverted whenever possible.  For the good of the patients you understand, my enjoyment of subversion is simply a happy side effect.

For instance.

One place I work has hospital and clinic physically attached.  I usually work in the ER, but on occasion help out in the clinic.  There is a rule that says the ER doctor can't order outpatient tests.  The rationale being that ER docs are transient, almost fly by nighters who won't be around to inform the patient of results and make appropriate decisions based on said results.  Darn ER doc is probably off lolly gagging.  Sleeping or some such nonsense.

On a lanyard around my neck I have two name tags.  One for ER doctor Me, one for Clinic doctor Me.

So when in my capacity as ER Me I decide a patient needs a follow up outpatient test the conversation is as follows:

"Hi.  This is ER doctor Me.  This patient needs to have this test scheduled tomorrow.  Now, I can't order that so I have spoken with Clinic doctor Me. (randomly flipping my name badges as I speak).  Clinic Me agrees this should be done.  Now, when the test is complete, have the patient go to the waiting area.  Call Clinic Me and he will walk over from this end of the hallway and discuss the results with the patient.  Unless of course Clinic Me happens to be over in the ER.  In that case, call over there and ER Me will temporarily transform to Clinic Me when he comes down that other hallway."

"And of course if there are any problems along the way just have the patient call one or both of us."

Friday, April 20, 2012

At the thrift store

A box full of plush toys.  Out of curiosity I googled the rather distinctive name on the box and found out that George Prazak was one of the authors of an article on the use of sulfa antibiotics in treating meningitis.  Date of publication?  1943.  He was a Lt. Colonel by then so this packing crate is likely earlier.
An interesting turn of phrase.  You hear of people being killed over arguments and drug deals gone bad.  In this case being killed over something is quite literal.  At least for the geese.

Official looking Census Bureau tote bags.  The store had a whole bunch of these.  You would think the Census Bureau would do a better job of predicting the numbers needed.
I almost bought this.  I really don't need another hot glue gun, but the design of this was obviously influenced by Star Trek phasers!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Student Robotics projects-how cheap can you get?

I am done with robotics projects for a while now, other than an afternoon gig I will be doing with some Boy Scouts later in the month.  Everything gets packed up for the summer months.

Every year when I wind up my basic robotics and my advanced robotics classes I get asked: "How can I do this on my own?"  Which makes me recall how I accumulated the pile of surplus stuff that allows me to create a robotics program with virtually zero ongoing expenses.

Lets take it by steps.


The basic combat robotics class I do just uses servos and junk.  So really all you would need would be a transmitter, a receiver, two servos and some batteries.  And the ability to charge the batteries.  There is a ton of this stuff out there, probably available for free or near free.  The problem is that most of it is on air frequencies, 72 mhz.  Technically this is illegal to use for ground based projects.  Now, some of our early combat robots did spend time flying though the air after being hit, but we did not use that as a technicality, and always tried to stay legal. 

Not that I would ever encourage even harmless flaunting of FCC rules (almost nobody is using 72 mhz anymore, that's why there is so much of it around).  But here are a few recent ebay offerings:
This gets you transmitter, receiver, crystals for both and a charger.  Usually the charger has ports for both the transmitter and for the receiver battery (not included).  So really all you would have to add would be a 6 volt RC battery and some servos.  Asking price when I looked this one up was $7.50 plus postage.  Most do not sell even at that price.  See, nobody wants to operate expensive airplanes with twitchy controllers.  Stuff crashes.

How 'bout some servos?

Here is a pair of older Futaba servos on ebay for asking price 99 cents and postage.  Make sure you get this kind of connectors, some of the really old servos have an odd three pronged connection that will not fit receivers....unless you found some really, really old receivers too!

I have to say, my local RC shop seems to have stuff like this from time to time.  The owner knows about my student projects and saves things for me.  You could ask about any vintage gear that might be around as RC guys upgrade to newer control systems.  For the record, 27, 49 and 75 mhz are ground legal.  72 mhz is not. 

Oh, regards servos, you can hack Futabas but the Hitec servos are equally abundant and a bit easier.  I have not mentioned 6 volt RC receiver batteries.  You can buy used as above.  Or if handy with a soldering iron make your own.  I have found some cheap surplus cell phone batteries at Axman that can be put together into 6 volt packs.


Lets assume you have at least a minimal budget to play with.  You want to buy some stuff that will not give you an education-the best kind btw-by having to figure things out and fix them.  Alright then.

This is a Vex system that was bidding at $149 with one day to go.  These are used for a lot of student robotics programs and are excellent.  You have to keep your eyes open for bargains, as the prices seem to be all over the map.  The above gets you transmitter, receiver, charger, batteries and a pile of mechanical stuff.  Servos too.  The transmitters in particular are nice, I use them preferentially in my classes.  The grey square object in the lower left is a Vex microprocessor.  If you purchase some additional software you can use this to do actual programming and make autonomous robots that can be programmed to carry out tasks. 

Vex systems seem to come on the market in waves, spring and summer are good times to look for them as school based programs are finishing up and extra stuff hits ebay.

If the whole package is a bit pricey just shop for the Vex transmitter.  It comes with a battery system that uses AA's, usually comes with a crystal and it works with some futaba 75mhz receivers such as these:
The Vex transmitter is basically a re-labled Futaba FM unit, so it works with certain Futaba receivers.  The above Futaba R153F and R133F three channel receivers work just fine.  You will need crystals that match, often the Vex transmitter you bought comes with a set.  And be advised, the Vex transmitters use an odd proprietory crystal type:

If you have a mind to buy servos new I can only suggest my source .  Good prices, good folks to work with.  Hitec HS 311, 322  and 325 are all cheap and easy to hack.


Most people start out small.  But if you have a mind to build the bigger stuff, most of the equipment above can be used.  You just need to add speed controllers and bigger batteries.

For speed controllers there are few more adaptable and durable than the IFI Victor 884.

This image is from the Vex Robotics site and gives useful specs and add ons.  You will need to interface between your radio receiver and your speed controllers.  Futaba receivers need a PWM signal booster, which you can get on the Vex site.  Or, if you happened to pick up a Vex microprocessor earlier you can route the PWM connectors through that without the need for a booster.  But you will need to make connectors that link the microprocessor to the speed controller, so order a four pack of the 12 inch 3 wire cable extenders and splice them into two wires with the appropriate connectors.  Yes, I admit this is a little complicated, that's why you should start with the simpler stuff.

On the Vex site the 12 volt Victor 884s list for 89 bucks.  Not bad, but if you keep an eye out on ebay you can occasionally pick them up for about half that.

You need one Victor for each side of your robot, they can drive either one or two motors per side depending on how much current you are putting through them.

Regards motors and such either canniblize some derelict Barbie Jeeps, or keep an eye out for worn out electric wheel chairs.  For batteries anything that sources 12 volts would work, but be advised that car batteries spill acid when tipped, and are in general a less than good choice.  Sealed batteries are more commonly found in motorcycle and lawnmower versions.  Gel cells of various types can be found on the cheap, I find them at Axman Surplus, but they are used and do not have the vigor of new units.  Batteries Plus has fresh units in the 12 to 13 amp-hour size at a somewhat reasonable price.

Clear enough? 

No?  Fine then, just email me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Gone in Sixteen Minutes

We had this snowblower.  It was a huge beast, bright orange, 1980s vintage.  We got it for nothing when the husband of a friend of ours passed away.  The snowblower probably weighed twice what the woman weighed, and she was clearly not going to be able to use it.

It worked out OK while Son Number Two was still at home.  He is a mechanical genius and when belts slipped and snow clogged the intake chute and other unspecified woes befell the machine he would grumble and put it back to right.

When he went off in the world it missed its Master and complained more often, but an occasional kick and curse would keep it going.

But this year when I needed it for a late winter blizzard it just would not run.

I looked at it and said *cue Darth Vader voice* "You have failed me for the last time".

We did not have an immediate plan for its disposal, although various options were floated.  Repair it.  Scrap it for metal.  Put it at the local auction barn.  Finally we just curbed it.

In our little community many households keep a sign like this in the garage:
The local custom is that you can put most anything out on the curb with a sign like this and it will go to a new home.  I was actually napping when they put it out there, with Son Two predicting it would take about two days for the snowblower to be out of our lives.

In a sixteen minute interval two guys with trucks slowed down to take a look at it, before a third fellow pulled up and laid claim to it.

Here it goes, on its way to a new home. 

Free Signs are obviously powerful things.  Once they have done their job put them back in the garage right away.  It would not do to, for instance, set them on the hood of your car for a minute.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Giant Mouse Update, April 2012

I noticed today (14 April) that our old pal Big Dee K6, or if you insist, Murray the Mouse, has a new outfit since I snapped his pic back in February.  Behold:

I wonder what it means.  Spring would be the obvious answer.  It seems a bit late for St. Patrick's day which was March 17th.  I think I have been past there since then. 

Perhaps Big Dee K6 wearing a Green Jacket is a reference to the U.S. Masters Golf Tournament which ran in the first week of April?

Of all the multiple facets of the Red Zone marketing strategy, a Country Club seems one of the less plausible!

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Tip of the (Baseball) Cap....

As part of my seasonal shift to baseball I had fully intended to post two rather lengthy articles that I had published back in the 1990s.  One was on baseball as played by the troopers of Custer's Seventh Cavalry.  The other was on a bizarre 19th century baseball team that existed as an advertising venue for a quack medicine manufacturer.

I dredged up my old copies, updated a few points of research and got the OK from the good folks at SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research who had included them in one of their scholarly publications.

As I geared up for the task of editing them down to something that non-baseball fans might find engaging I discovered something....both topics had been redone, and redone better on somebody elses' blogs!

In each case there was due credit given, and indeed it looks to me as if my work was the foundation on which they built.  But these folks have done additional work, corrected a few of my research errors and in general written the blog posts I would have liked to have done.

So for those interested in the arcana of 19th century baseball I shall just supply the links.  Good job, fellow baseball cultists!

The strange tale of the Rochester Hop Bitters baseball team contains rascals, future Hall of Famers and a more or less hapless team whose performance was not improved by being asked to take a swig of herb laced alcoholic patent medicine before each game.

This article on Baseball with Custers Seventh Cavalry is built around an imaginary baseball card for Captain Benteen, the animating spirit of the National Pastime in that ill fated regiment.  It is well done but leaves out a fair amount of detail on their play during garrison duty.

And for more, much, much more on the oddities of baseball history I direct you to the SABR index of articles from The National Pastime.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Big Dee K6-The Truth comes out

In the finest tradition of blogging I wrote my recent post Unclear on the Marketing Concept which mentioned a large fiberglass mouse named Big Dee K6 and then after the fact went about looking for real information on him.  As it turns out, a feature writer for a local paper did some actual investigative journalism and found out the  following:

I seem to have been wrong about the name.  This is Murray the Mouse.  My recollections of an Ivan the Mouse are either random synapses firing off or, more likely, me remembering a different cheese mouse.  They are not exactly unheard of in Wisconsin after all.  I would also not rule out a brief name change during his merchantile wanderings.

Reading about his various decorations..hunting vest, Santa suit, unspecified yet inappropriate anatomic appendage seems likely that the graffitti currently to be found on Murray is indeed petty vandalism.  Or lousy artistic expression which amounts to the same thing.

The Eau Claire Leader Telegram article from two years ago alludes to plans to hoist the big rat up and perch him atop the Red Zone.  Sadly for those of us in search of Ultra Kitch this has not come to pass.

As I suspected all along, Murray is a product of F.A.S.T, Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks.  This thriving little niche business is in Sparta, Wisconsin and seems to be doing rather nicely, thank you, catering to the odd midwestern fascination with big fiberglass stuff. 

Next Door Laura has made a pilgrimage to their headquarters. More on this  here.  And here.  And here.

I must note from the above article that Murray's travels have a rather random nature to them.  Who would have imagined him as a Mother's Day gift?  Or being offered for free at the drive through window of a Dairy Queen?  Yet another example, and a 9 foot tall 300 pound example to boot, of me not being in the right place at the right time......

And finally, additional kudos to Next Door Laura for unearthing evidence of a band called THE BIG DEEKS.  I think she has correctly translated the spray painted cryptogram.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Unclear on the Marketing Concept

Look, I am sympathetic to those in the restaurant business.  It is tough sledding during good times, and when the economy is having difficulties it gets even harder.  So I understand how some beleaguered business owners cast about a bit for a winning concept.

But a place in a nearby community has taken this a little too far.  It seems to be something different every time I drive past!

This is the view from across the highway.  All sorts of odd visuals to be seen.  Let's get closer...

A few years ago it was a Mexican place.  I ate there a few times, the food was OK.  The yellow adobe facade and the odd South Western style cornice with red tile recalls this era.  Near as I can tell there was a pool hall incarnation in recent years, accounting for the Eight Ball.  Note the three segments of signage.  First a white and red vinyl sign of recent vintage.  It says REDZONE BAR.  Then a bare patch where a bit of sign has been pulled away leaving a clean spot and some dirt and rust from old anchoring points.  Finally a surviving bit of an earlier sign that blandly says RESTAURANT.

Parked out front is what I assume to be a Courtesy Van.  The theory being that tipplers can drink to happy excess then be hauled home by the establishment.  Hopefully in the morning they will remember where they have been and retrieve their cars.  The motto of the Red Zone seems to be:  "Home of the Smokin' Hot Bartenders & Big Girl Hotdogs".   This seems a little naughty, as if the term Red Zone is being used not in its more common sports context (the portion of a football field within the 20 yard line), and more in a sort of "Red Light District" sense.  Supporting this notion....

Here we again have a suggestion of saucy activity, in the form of the languid babes on either side of the speedometer.  But does this logo suggest the Red Zone is driving over 90 miles an hour?  Kind of the opposite of a nice courtesy ride home.  And are we a pickup bar and a sports bar and a rock music venue?

But the weirdest bit of decor outside the Red Zone is this:

You did notice the giant mouse on the left side of the first picture, did you not?  This actually seems to be "Ivan the Cheese Mouse", who moved to this spot when another business down the road went under.  I don't know why he has acquired what looks to be an intentional defacement with "urban" looking graffiti, but his new name looks to be Big Dee K6.  Or possibly Big De EKG? 
I think after a night in my cups this is just about the last thing I would want to stumble across in the parking lot.  "Please don't choke me, Big Dee K6!"

Oh, so you can still imagine a coherent pattern to their marketing?  I can remedy that....
Look upon and marvel.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Yes, there are days like that.....

I was at a conference in another city.  As is often the case, the medical center was in a part of town once genteel now perhaps most kindly described as "gritty".  Across the street from the hospital was a seedy looking liquor store with this remarkable sign:
In general I enjoy my job.  I would do it just for the fun of it most days. 

But every once in a while you hit a stretch where the above sign resonates......

Friday, April 6, 2012

Opening Day

My beloved Minnesota Twins are opening the 2012 season today.  It was a terrible season last year, and it may not be realistic to hope for a World Series championship this year either. 

But heck, I can always escape's a nifty bit of fantasy.

This marvelous work captures two of my and dogs behaving like people.  It is entitled "One to tie and two to win". 

Does the style look just a little familiar?  Well, it should, as it is a lesser known work of a genius named Cassius Marcellus Coolidge.  For an in depth exploration of the man whose "Dogs Playing Poker" paintings grace many a basement rec room, I recommend:

Dogs Playing Poker!

And back in the real world....Play Ball!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tree Shaped Tombstones. More examples, more mysteries.

Sometimes a topic keeps turning up at Detritus of Empire for no reason other than that I find it interesting. 

I continue to collect examples of Tree Shaped Tombstones, but am really no farther along in my understanding of them.

For instance....

Most Americans are fairly open minded regarding religion.  But in matters of life and death they have historically preferred to hedge their bets just a little.  Hence the common situation of having both Catholic and Protestant affiliated hospitals in many cities, even when logic would suggest that a single institution would serve better.  You would not want to die in the "wrong" place.

And of course we have cemeteries devoted to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and I suppose Muslim faiths.

When wandering about the Protestant cemetery I found lots of "Trees".  But across the road which, along with the whole Reformation thing, divides the departed of various faiths, I found no similar tombstones.  The cemeteries were of similar age.  The demographics of the two communities were similar.  But no tree shaped tombstones on the Catholic side.

It got me wondering.  At various times in history Catholics have been discouraged from joining fraternal organizations.  So maybe these generic tree tombstones really did indicate membership in the Woodmen of the World.  And maybe no Catholics were allowed in, either by the Pope or by the Woodmen.  A plausible theory that did not survive my finding this bit of evidence on the Catholic side:
And a close up:
So out the window with the no Catholics theory for the Woodmen, and a serious problem for my notion that the tree shaped tombstones were Woodmen graves that for some reason did not have the traditional Woodmen logo as shown above.  Obviously the logo was available.

In another small cemetery I found some Tree Tombstones that had a nice point-counterpoint theme:

I found the juxtaposition of the lopped off limbs and the new growing vine to be oddly comforting.  I guess in a cemetery, more than most places, you have solid evidence that another generation is always coming along.  Here are some additional examples of new growth alongside the dead lumber:

And another, the moss and lichen adds some nice color and texture:

I have also found more examples of what I call "The Family Tree", where there is a central feature and smaller little "stack of sticks" markers for individuals.  Some of the latter seem so very basic and, well, cheap.  Why would you spring for what must have been a rather pricey marker for the family plot and then remember your parents like this:

This last example was especially poignant.  All trace of identity is gone.  We would know nothing about the man who was laid to rest here if not for the GAR star stuck precariously alongside that marks him as a man who served in the Union Army in the final days of the Civil War.  One careless bump of the lawnmower and we could lose the memory of this fellow entirely.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Middle School Robotics Project-Chapter Sixth and Final

The class sessions are done.  We have a day coming up where we will drive the robot around all three lunches at the Middle School.  The robot still does not have a name....various monikers were proposed but none sounded right.

It is designed to navigate slowly between tables crowded with pre-teens addled by hormones, spring  weather and carbohydrates.  It nudges up, pivots at the waist and then flexes arms that will either deliver a spray of M & Ms scattered across the table top....or a spritz of water that can shoot out a good 15 feet.

A good bunch of students.  I have a policy of not showing kids faces, but there are ways around almost all problems.....

What are the odds that all the kids would be named Wilson?  I like the kid hiding behind the strobe light, but the two using bags of M & Ms for annonymity were pretty clever too.

Following are a few video clips.  The robot is much more capable than the cameraman.
This shows the ever popular squirt gun feature. 

 Here is the robot at hallway speeds. 

This is the M & M dispenser.
This shows the pivot mechanism and a few M & Ms hitting the table.

A fun project all in all.  I hope that "show time" goes off without a hitch, but I do not actually expect it to.  There is always some loose wire, some poorly attached connector, some battery that does not have as much power as expected.  Really I find troubleshooting to be the most valuable skill learned from this sort of junkbot engineering.

For instance I told the kids that there were at least five ways that the control units could lose radio signal, and asked them to list them.

Darned if they didn't get all five.

As I said, a good bunch of students.  And as a final message I had them all stop jabbering for 15 seconds while I imparted to them the Secret of Success in this here world:

"Always show up with batteries fully charged."