Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Robot Dragster Project - Chapter Seven. "One half Impulse Power...."

We meet on Thursdays.

In the winter this means that I very much hope for blizzards and other inclement stuff to come any other day of the week.  This week school was cancelled on Tuesday due to an ice storm.  Thursday was good.
Final wiring done.  We ran out of time before we could connect up the steering, it needs a little reinforcement anyway.  The remaining sessions will be testing and adding crash resistance.

This is the near final form.  Sadly, we don't get any sponsorship from 3M...somebody just brought the stickers in.

This is bench testing the control system....and a rough idea of maximum rpms once it gets up to Warp Speed.

As you can see, the theoretical top speed is scary.  I detailed two kids to work on a braking system. The theory is that we mount this high torque little gear motor with a bolted on plywood/friction tape paddle in such a fashion that when it is activated it will repetitively "bump" the drive belt.  Sort of like pumping the brakes on an icy road.  Which in fact is probably exactly where we will end up testing it.

With about 15 minutes to spare we plopped the dragster down in the hallway and powered it up.  Nothing happened, the belt spun, the wheels stood still.  This was puzzling to me, I knew it had worked a week earlier.  One of my brighter students correctly diagnosed the problem, the shaft holding the front steering wheel was binding the wheel.  Once this was freed up we were able to do several short hallway tests.  At this point we are not trying to steer it, simply give it about five seconds of power to see what the acceleration is like.

Ahead at one half impulse power, Mr. Sulu.

The lads are in fairly high spirits, as they should be.  This is a complex machine and I think it has good prospects for working well.  My assistant and I are privately estimating a top speed of 30 to 35 mph if we can get the police to block off a section of nearby roadway for us.  And if they can control it.

Also if it does not snow on the test day.  I probably should have done this project spring trimester but that would conflict with my archeology trip.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Suds, a Fugitive and Hidden Treasure

At first I was not sure whether to include this one in the list of "forgotten" brewery caves. It has been preserved for visitors.  Heck, you can read about it on the website of the  Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.  But as you make your way out of downtown St. Paul you quickly realize that this is a site that has indeed been mostly forgotten.  I had to wind my way through a construction area, under a freeway bridge and then down a narrow little lane to get there.  My only fellow visitors were strangely equipped, warm clad folks who wandered around in ones and two carrying little rakes and shovels.  (They were searching for the Winter Carnival Medallion, always hidden in a public area).

Here is the cave.

This cave was used by the North Star Brewery.  The brewery got its start in 1855, oddly enough run at first not by Germans but by a Scotch/English partnership.  The initial establishment was small, only a single natural cave enlarged for ageing purposes, and two 50 by 75 foot buildings.  But the brewery grew quickly with many additions and the customary ownership changes.  It was actually built into the stone face above, with the cave(s) coming right out of the lower levels of the brewery.  By the 1880s it was producing 16,000 barrels of beer annually, and claimed to be the second biggest brewery west of Chicago.  I have read a few snippets here and there that indicate the caves had been expanded into a larger complex.  Also that it was in later years referred to as "Montana Bill's Cave".

In 1900 fire destroyed the brewery, which by now had grown to 300 by 200 feet.  The entire area then then declined into a sort of industrial wasteland.

If you look closely above you will see a smaller cave entrance to the right of the main one. There is a similar one to the left:

The reasons for this "three door" arrangement are not obvious.  The smaller flanking doors seem low enough that it is hard to imagine they were ever used as entrances....unless the grade of the land has been raised a good bit.  And this may be the case, as multilevel caves are not uncommon for the larger brewers.  Taking a peek into the main cave:

There is some serious spring water activity here, almost a foot of clear water in the floor of  the cave.  I visited on a very brisk day, so the misty effect is steam rising up from the surface.  But you can just make out the end of the cave back some 40 feet.  Actually I am pretty sure this represents a later sealing off of the cave.  You don't run a 16,000 barrel a year brewery with a storage area the size of a garage.  The two side entrances by the way appear to connect to the left and right with the main passage.  I was looking through a security gate and can't see around corners, so have no way to tell if they have also been sealed.  One does have to wonder if the water flow was less "back in the day".  It seems inconvenient.

If you look around the outside of the cave you can still make out a few traces of the old brewery buildings.

And about twenty feet to the right of this spot I saw a tell tale plume of steam coming up!

See the frost?  I assume that this is another blocked off entrance to the North Star Brewery cave complex.

Just a little more detective work located this rather well done video from the National Park Service.  You can tell they are trying to be cute here and there, but at the 4:30 mark they do briefly flash a graphic showing the four cave entrances I located, and one other that can no longer be seen.


Addendum:  I thought that the name "Montana Bill's Cave" might relate to this odd story. William Raymond Nesbit was a jewel thief who had a falling out with some of his hoodlum bretheren.  He ended up taking the rather extreme measure of blowing up one of them with 3,500 pounds of dynamite and 7,000 pounds of black powder.  This caused quite a ruckus, breaking windows in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.....five miles away.  Nesbit was captured and convicted in 1937, but escaped from the South Dakota State Penitentiary in 1946.  Four years later he was placed on the FBI "Most Wanted List" and his picture was in the papers.  Local children recognized him as the fellow living in the North Star Brewery cave. And that is where police arrested him.

Did William from South Dakota become Bill from Montana?  Oh, I so wanted it to be so.

But it seems you can find anything on the internet, including the FBI file on the wicked Mr. Nesbit.  It turns out that he had been chatting with the local kids as they played cops and robbers, but called himself "Ray".  When the intrepid junior detectives saw the picture in the paper they thought "Ray" was Nesbit but were not sure.  I really like the part where the kids .."threw snowballs through the hole in the top of the cave to get "RAY" to come out".  With what they felt was a strong resemblance they were able to persuade the police to come and arrest Nesbit.  All very "Hardy Boys", no?

So far as I can tell, Nesbit never used the alias Montana Bill, nor is there any reason for him to be remembered by anything other than his real name or perhaps "Ray".

So, who was Montana Bill?

Anybody got the answer?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Stop and Go in Europe

We are planning a trip.  As it will be through linguistically mixed up regions it is necessary to polish up all available skills.  It has fallen to me to handle German, based on a passing familiarity.  I can manage fairly well.  In fact, once in a small village in Luxembourg I was mistaken for perhaps being Dutch and slightly tipsy, which I took as a compliment to my effective use of one year of high school German deployed enthusiastically.

So as I go here and there I pop a CD into the player and work on vocabulary.  Sometimes a word grabs my attention.

Traffic light for instance.  In German this is "ein Ampel".

I figured this must in some fashion refer to Amps the measure of electrical current, or to Andre-Marie Ampere, the pioneer of electrical theory.

But when on a walk with my spouse I mentioned this.  Alas, I too often bug her with etymological musings of this sort.  She said "Probably not", and mentioned that in French the term for traffic light is "Feu".  But she wondered if the common word "lamp" might be related to Monsieur Ampere.  L'amp sort of makes sense.

So what's the real story.  Any connections to be found?

Not really.

Ampel derives from the Latin, ampulla.  This in ancient Rome was a sort of bulbous flask that might look a bit like a traffic light.

Feu is from the Latin focus for hearth.  It more specifically means fire.  A light, or something that lights up, makes sense.

Lamp has come down more or less intact from the Latin lampas, or torch.

Poor old Ampere did not figure into any of this, but after an unhappy life (on his deathbed he supposedly left instruction that his tombstone read "Tandem Felix", which is "happy at last), he is widely remembered for his work.

Ampel interestingly has a personification, der "Ampelmannchen" or "little traffic light guy".

Ampelmannchen was specific to East Germany and is darn near the only example of Eastern Bloc design to actually catch on widely.  With reunification AM was retired for a time, but he has become a symbol of "Ostalgie", or nostalgia for East Germany.  By popular demand he has reappeared in both Eastern and Western parts of the unified Germany.

Addendum:  The dreary "Tandem Felix" inscription reported by Wikipedia to grace the final resting place of A.M. Ampere does not appear on his tombstone.  I am not certain if this is a result of reburial (he now occupies a joint tomb with his son Jean Jacques Ampere who died almost 30 years later), or if the whole thing is one of those internet legends.  I suppose the inscription could even be on the back of the monument but there does not seem to be much room there.  Or did the executors of his estate just ignore this final wish?.....

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Robot Dragster Project - Chapter Six

These "build report" posts are not the most widely read items on my blog.  No, those all seem to involve small cute dogs or jumping carp.

But I feel a need to chronicle things of this nature because I do know that they are occasionally sought out by people contemplating student robotics projects.

My last posting may have sounded a little down beat.  A crucial component got botched and one wheel hub was fritzed up beyond repair.  On a more aggravating level, it was an avoidable error.  When you are working with no shop access, just hand tools; and when you have a less than optimal grownups to monkeys ratio, things will go wrong.  Parts that get messed up are really have to devote all extra attention to basic safety issues.

So I did something I prefer not to do.  I took the project home and fixed a couple of things for the kids.

Hey, I have a drill press, a band saw, a lathe....I can in short order make sloppy, soon to fail parts of the project into less sloppy, runs a bit longer stuff.  In order of work:

1. fixed the wheel hub.  It was a press mount that had to be fairly precise.  Fortunately I had just the right thing in aluminium, easier to finesse than the original steel part.

2. At this point curiosity took over.  I hooked the motor up to 24 volt power and stood back.

Nothing happened.

It seems the RPMs were too high and the torque too low with the existing pulley sizes. The belts just spun, the wheels stood still.  Well, nothing for it but to swap in a larger pulley.  This required cutting a slot in the deck, but has the additional advantage of raising the back of the machine so that the steering gear won't prop the front of the project up too high.

I think this was a good move.  It looks better, that's good.  It moves when powered up at 24 volts.  That's very good.  And the kids can spend more time learning new stuff rather than repetitive grinding and pounding recalcitrant metal.  Also very good.
And things moved right along.  I just assigned tasks.  "You, finish and test the wiring on this speed controller, here's the schematics.  You and you, finish the mounting block for the steering.  You guys are working with me."

Motor mounted, battery box in place.  Note the bigger pulley on the axle.  And both wheels on securely.

The steering mechanism is on the bottom of the machine.  I am a little worried about damage.  We ran out of time just before securing the actuator into place.

Decorative touches.  Note the Axman surplus sticker on the left.  And here the kids are mounting a hood ornament.  It is called "Jerry" after some kind of video game character.

Hey, I don't have much of a budget.  My help is game but intermittent.  My work force is under age and over stimulated.  But by gosh I do have an official pit area.  Storage of the things you really can't do without.

I think the dragster project is back on track, and looks as if it will work.  But I guess the second unit is not likely to happen.  We keep running into little glitches that need fixing on the main unit.  That week we lost to a snow day really hurt.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Annoying, Conspecific Houseguests

Guy Fleegman: "Sure, they're cute now, but in a second they're gonna get mean, and they're gonna get ugly somehow, and there's gonna be a million more of them." 

There really is a Galaxy Quest quote to fit almost any occasion in life.  But in this case the initial evaluation of "cute" is debatable.  

We have guests.

This is a Box Elder bug, also known as a Maple Bug.  I have always felt, based on their tiny heads and seemingly dim behaviour, that these must be about the stupidest creatures on earth.  Every fall we find them massed near the doorways of our house, trying to find a way in for the winter.  Which I guess is a fairly smart thing to be doing when you actually consider it.  They get swept, stomped, vacuumed up in bulk.

But every winter some make it in.

Mostly they are happy to just sit.  But on a warm day you always see a few come creeping out of their hiding places to sun themselves on a toasty window sill next to the radiator.  Because our autumn border patrol efforts are fairly diligent I must reluctantly conclude that they have also found a way in among the siding and insulation of our house, and that the inside of our walls contains a huge hive of the damn things.

Ick.  Brings to mind one of the movies that Galaxy Quest was sort of mocking....Aliens.

So what's really the deal with these guys?

The alternate name, Maple Bugs, explains some of it.  We have a bunch of maple trees and these little red dudes eat maple seed pods.  I figure they are none too efficient at it, as we still have lots of maple seedlings popping up in all available garden spaces.

And in the fall?  Well, according to the oh so smartypants Wikipedia:

"This is especially a problem during the cooler months, when they sometimes invade houses and other man-made structures seeking warmth or a place to overwinter. They remain inactive inside the walls (and behind siding) while the weather is cool."

And when unexpected heat comes their way?  (This must be the bug equivalent of global warming btw).

"When the heating systems revive them, some may falsely perceive it to be springtime and enter inhabited parts of the building in search of food, water, and  conspecifics."

OK, makes sense I guess.  You wake up after a long nap and food and water would be priorities.  But conspecifics?

In bug biology terms it means of the same species, or at least close enough for breeding purposes.

I get the impression that the Box Elder bugs are not all that picky.

Great, just about the ideal house guests.  Uninvited.  Gonna stay a long time.  Under foot. And inside the walls of my house having an enormous, conspecific insect Woodstock.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Digging for Romans-2013

Still frozen solid here in the States, which gets me thinking about digging in the warm spring sunshine of Northern England.

The blog name "Detritus of Empire" comes from its original incarnation, as a daily email report to the folks back home when I was away on my annual volunteer stint excavating at the site of a former Roman fort/community in England.

I am signed up again for 2013.

Last year was my fifth time over, and in some ways not the most fun one.  Dreadful, dreary weather. Rain every single day.   Heavy, slimy earth to move.  Frequent scanning of the heavens to see if the day's excavations would in fact happen.

But this is part of the experience.

As I stare out the window at chilly climes I can at least revisit gentle sunny days, and some interesting finds over the years.  Some of these are things I was reluctant to show at the time....there is an ongoing concern that outlaw metal detectors will sneak in at night and rummage through the excavations.

photo credit P. Savin
Well, the ground is frozen, even in England, and the finds I am showing today are all from areas now excavated and either backfilled or reconstructed with modern reinforcement of ancient stonework.  Plus, none of them are all that valuable, certainly nothing worth getting arrested and prosecuted at the Queen's Bench!

An assemblage of finds.  The large dark bit is a chunk of carved stone from some kind of monument or decorative work.  The grey, rectangular bit to the right is a whetstone, used then as now to sharpen metal tools.

A worked bit of stone.  Perhaps a gaming counter, but more likely a pot lid.

A nice bit of pottery.  Probably from a type of vessel that often featured a stylized face on the front.

Roman bling #1.  A small pendant with traces of enamel inset.  Evidence of women being present on the site?  But we know so little of the customs of the day, maybe men went in for ornamentation too.

Roman bling #2.  Romans did not have buttons.  So they held their clothes together with various pins.  This was a penannular brooch.  Usually the actual pin has corroded away in finds found in upper levels.

Roman bling #3.  Another brooch, one in the "bow fibular" style.  Contemporary coin for scale.  The pin would have gone across the gap in an arrangement similar to the tibia and fibula bones of the human leg...hence the name!

Wishing for spring, with warmth, sunshine and pints of ale..

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Robot Dragster Project - Chapter Five

Early on we had a discussion about brakes.  Although the primary job of a dragster is to accelerate quickly, there is the practical matter of stopping it in a fashion that allows for more than one run.

One of the motor options we looked at had electromagnetic brakes.  Past tense, I had removed them for another project.  We could have put them back on, but that motor did not get selected.

Brainstorming braking ideas the kids came up with:

Parachute, like real dragsters.
Tail hook, like jets use landing on carriers.
Ending the test course on a hill.

And of course

The "Jumpin' General Lee" option does have some appeal, but maybe we will save that for a future robotics project.

I think we can just have a long straight test course and power down the drive at about 200 feet out.

A revealing work session.  A couple of the kids were finalists in the school geography contest. Some of the others wanted to go and cheer them on.  So I said those that wanted to should go and come back in five minutes.  Two kids stayed.

The kids who left did not come back for fifteen minutes.  The two kids who stayed buckled down and put together what looks like a workable steering system using a satellite dish linear actuator.

When the other kids wandered back things bogged down right away.  We are falling farther and farther behind and may have to concentrate on just one machine.  Even then it may not run properly.

It is really not the fault of the kids I guess.  Each year with the advanced class I try and push the limits.  How many kids can we sneak into the class?  How complex a project can we take on?  It may simply be that I have found the outer limits of what is possible....and gone beyond them.

Here is progress to date.  Sloppy work much in evidence.  Hand tools, especially in inexpert hands....

Four more sessions.  There is at least the sole consolation that this is not a class that ends in a major event as does the combat robot class.  If it does not work, well, things have been learned along the way.

Sometimes failed projects teach us the most!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Curious Legacy of General Claude Martin

Claude Martin probably intended to follow the traditional path for Europeans in India.  He would work hard, accumulate a large amount of money and then return home in triumph.  But the last did not work out for him.  In his later years France was convulsed in revolution and at war with England.  And as a long ago deserter from the French cause to the British East India Company he would have been regarded at best with suspicion in either country.

So he stayed.  He was by now putting the finishing touches on another, even grander mansion called Constantia.

As his health began to fail in early 1800 he created a rather remarkable Will, which is only partly contained at the link.

Martin was a very rich man.  When we speak of one being able to "buy and sell" others, it was literally true in his case...there was considerable disapproval even in his time over Martin's buying of slaves.  At his death his fortune was somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 pounds, which in the purchasing power of that time and place would make him the equivalent of a significant multi-millionaire.  The inventory of his belongings reflected his wealth both of material things and of interests.

There were supplies and machines for bookbinding, carpentry and diamond cutting.  There were fossils, minerals, shells, an entire puppet theater, a complete suit of armor, crystal bottles for perfume of his own manufacture.  There was cloth from the Falkland Islands, a "hand in plaster of the Irish Giant", telescopes, guitars, a stuffed monkey and '1 small roomfull Hindostanee Fireworks".  The latter it seems were the work of his own personal pyrotechnician, a man whose artistry he had admired enough to make him an employee!

Being no doubt mindful of the extent of fiscal chicanery extant at that time - to which he had been a very active party one might add - Martin tried to make his Will very specific.

His various mistresses all got financial arrangements and in some instances houses.  He seems in the case of one favorite to have also left instructions on dealing with any subsequent husbands should they do her wrong.   Also arranged were funds to pay her staff of 11 servants for the rest of her life.

He deeded a number of properties in his native Lyon to various family members, although he seems to have scarcely been in contact with them.

He left a small fund for "creditable" prisoners in Calcutta, especially recommending for largess any military officers incarcerated over bad debts.

He set aside monies for the poor in Calcutta, Lucknow and Chandernagore.  The principle was to remain untouched, the interest used for a daily distribution by "a Christian padre or priest, Protestant or Chatholic or Muslim, Hindoo...".  This worthy aim is still honored in principle by the occasional distribution of alms at the tomb of Martin's favorite mistress, but a memento of the more ambitious project can apparently still be seen in the form of an obscure metal marker inside St. John's Church in Calcutta:

 "The sum of fifty thousand Sicca Rupees is a Gift granted by Major General Claud Martin To the Poor of Calcutta.  The Interest of which is to be daily distributed in perpetuity".

The point of posting such notices in public places was to reduce the chance of corrupt middlemen, a species well known to the General, from simply pocketing the money.

And most remarkably designated the bulk of his estate to the establishment and continued upkeep for a college for '..learning young Men the english language, and Christian religion if they find themselves inclined."

Much more detailed instructions followed, and after much legal wrangling a series of schools, all called La Martiniere were established in Lyon France and in Calcutta and Lucknow India.  They are all going strong 212 years after Martin's death.

Lucknow was Martin's home for most of his life, and the city most associated with him.  So it is the Lucknow school that is most closely linked to his legacy.  It is based in Martin's mansion house of Constantia, and indeed Martin's crypt lies beneath it.  Once a year on the anniversary of his death wreaths are laid there, and a Founder's Day dinner is held.  Alas, the specific menu items which Martin designated are no longer served.   The school song is an unashamed paean to Martin.  It goes in part:

All his martial deeds may die,
Lasting still his charity;
This his laurel blooms for aye,
Dead, he lives in us today.
This, then, our song shall be,
As we chant his eulogy -
"May our Founder's name endure,
Ever spotless, ever pure!"

The La Martiniere schools are to this day held in very high repute.  They are run along the lines of English Public schools but with provisions for students of lesser means to have their tuition supported.  Students are divided up into four "houses" each with their own name and color scheme.  Academics and sports are pursued with enthusiasm.

But the Lucknow La Martiniere can claim a distinction unique among schools.

The year was 1857.  Festering resentment to British abuses erupted into The Mutiny.  As rebel forces approached Lucknow the headmaster had the school fortified and provisioned to withstand a siege.  At the last moment the students and teachers were instead ordered into the Residency, the nearby government complex, and ordered to defend a section of the perimeter.

Through a long and bloody siege, until eventual relief and evacuation, the students of La Martiniere took up arms and upheld the martial traditions of their founder with distinction. They also continued their classes.  All concerned were awarded the Defense of India medal with a special clasp for Lucknow.

And the school itself?  It became the only educational institution every to be awarded a Regimental battle honor, which they are allowed to display on ceremonial occasions.

After reading this tale I started to wonder.  It just sounded a little familiar I guess.  A British style school, divided into four houses.  A place very set apart and different from its surrounding world.  A ornate castle like campus.  A gallant defense by students against formidable odds.

My goodness, you don't suppose J.K. Rowling ever heard this story?

There is by the way an active alumni association for the La Martiniere Schools.  By now male and female, they meet in various countries around the globe.  So it is that near to and far from his native and adopted homes, Old Martinians still gather on Founders Day to celebrate the life of Claude Martin.


Here are some nicely done pictures of  La Martiniere, Lucknow.
And I must note that the original "template" for Hogwarts is said by some to be here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Remarkable General Claude Martin

I think there have been some periods of history where it was just easier to be heroic, to attain a larger than life status.  The 1700s were such a time.  There were still unexplored places on earth and mankind's entire viewpoint was being reshaped by the Enlightenment of Jefferson and Rousseau.  These were the times of Claude Martin, a man whose life and posthumous memorials read like fiction.

He was born in 1735 in Lyon, France.  The name Claude is rather atypical for France as a whole, but was fairly common in Lyon since the discovery there of a massive bronze tablet called the Edict of Claudius.
to be seen in the Gallo Roman museum, Lyon

For reasons unclear young Claude Martin joined the French Army at age 16, much against his mother's wishes.  He shipped out for India which at that time was being fought over by France, Britain and their various local allies.  He never left.

Things did not go well for the French cause and in 1760 Martin simply defected and changed employers.  This may account for his somewhat diminished reputation in his home country.  But Martin was ever the opportunist, and working for the British East India Company was simply where the opportunities were.

And he grabbed at opportunity with both hands.  He served the British as a surveyor and as an army officer. He dabbled in real estate, grew indigo and loaned money at high interest rates to raj and raja alike.  He succeeded in getting himself appointed to a ridiculously profitable post as superintendent of an armory.  He made money hand over fist.

But he was not a simple money grubber.  He was an architect, building himself a magnificent palace of a home called Farad Baksh.  Among other things it had a treasure vault in the basement where he kept the money of other Europeans safe in a time where there were no banks.  Charging a 12% annual fee for the service of course.  But safety he provided, the house was a fortress with a couple of small artillery pieces guarding the front door.

He was also a scientific tinkerer.  In the hinterland city of Lucknow, India he seems to have launched the first manned balloon flight in Asia, in 1785. This was a mere two years after the first ever such flight took place in Paris.

He was a contemporary of Ben Franklin and also experimented with electricity.  He actually had some early  apparatus for electrical lighting, although it appears to have been more parlor trick than practical.

Claude was one tough hombre.  He once survived a ship wreck, subsequent detainment by unfriendly locals, and a cross-the-jungle trek to freedom in which at least one other castaway was eaten by "a tyger".

The tropics were a harsh environment to 18th century Europeans.  Most suffered ill health and many died there.  Claude Martin's particular cross to bear was bladder stones.  Not much fun at all, and a condition that tended to slowly progress to renal failure and death.  So he decided to operate on himself.

Yes, on himself.  The details are cringe worthy and involved daily use of a special metal catheter with a sharpened edge that he used to file away the stone---using it six to eight times a day over the course of several months.  He sent a written account of his novel surgical procedure to "a Medical Society in London" to be published.

By the time of his death in 1800 Claude Martin was the stuff of legend.  Fabulously rich, known by everyone of importance.  His palatial homes were social gathering places, his library one of the most extensive in India.

Oh, he was no saint.  Some of his letters allude to his urinary difficulties being in part due to venereal disease.  If so his self treatment seems to have done him wonders, at the time of his death he had seven mistresses, all scandalously at least 30 years younger than he.

His business dealings were dubious and he seems to have always held the Indians in contempt, referring to them as "blacks" and painting few positive pictures of them.

Perhaps it was an awareness of his shortcomings in life that prompted him to write a rather extraordinary will near the end.  European rule of India vanished.  But the legacy of Claude Martin endured....

Next:  The Legacy of General Martin.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Robot Dragster Project - Chapter Four

When doing a student project one question arises that you might not anticipate.

How much engineering is the right amount?

The Robot Dragsters are supposed to work, or at least have enough prospects of working that we can have fun testing them.  But they do not have to work for very long, or perfectly, or better than any competitive products being sold in the marketplace.  So it would be silly to build out of expensive materials, or to have some aspects of the project be created to microscopic tolerances while other elements are plywood and lag bolts.

Of course with kids, their default mode is to suggest we just use duct tape and hot glue. And when pressed for specifics as to just how things can be made to fit together, they resort to hazy concepts expressed primarily with vague gestures.  In other words they resort to "handwavium".

We covered this topic on our last build session before the Christmas break.  I introduced them to the concept of "good enough" engineering.  If a simple, cheap, inelegant solution will work for long enough to satisfy the need at hand, do it.  This is often referred to as "Kludge" or as "Ghetto Engineering".  The latter term is a little out of favor, but I am not sure why.  If ghetto references the original meaning of a community where Jewish folks reside, and you look at the percentage of Nobel prizes won by said Jewish folks, it is a high standard to attain indeed.

But I actually prefer the term "Bigger Hammer Engineering".


Rather an off session for working on Thursday.  The kids were rusty after the Christmas vacation and my usual assistant was not able to be there.  In place I had my Number 2 son help out.  He is a machinist/welder/tinkerer of phenomenal abilities, so working with plywood and squirrels was probably hard on him.  But I told the kids that after this they could in later years say that they had once worked alongside a genuine Master.

There are a couple of kids who really love hammers.  We have no difficulty finding things for the "Hammer kids" to help tap into place.

Pulley in place and held in with key.  Improvised bearing blocks from old, cut up ping pong table.  Just before we ran out of work time we were able to put the belts on and fire it up. With a 1:1 ratio the MagMotor makes the axle scream.

Angle grinders are noisy.  Who would have thought middle school kids were that sound sensitive...the entire school is a maelstrom of racket all day long!  Although I have not been all that emphatic on hearing protection-the loud tools are just in use for a few seconds at a time-we are immaculate regards eye protection.

I keep the budget minuscule by using the items in hand.  This will be a hub for the "light" dragster.  It was once a chain sprocket for a 60 pound combat robot.  Widening a few of the holes will not limit its future use for some purpose yet unknown.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Tree Shaped Tombstones-Hitting the Jackpot part 2

More from New Ulm Minnesota, the best cemetery to date for tree shaped tombstones...

I have decided that I am going to commission a "tree" when my time comes.  Or maybe my wife and I will share one.  In either case I am planning to have a faithful dog curled around the base. I thought for a moment I had found one:

It could be a dog, some sort of whippet or greyhound.  But there does not seem to be much of a tail.  So it could be a deer.  Or a poorly rendered lamb.

I really was not sure what to make of this one.  The double eagle logo is similar to that of the Hapsburg Empire, and the number 32 could, I figured, represent an army regiment.  But the Latin motto - it means "My Hope is in God" - seemed a little non-martial.  As it turns out this is a Masonic logo, specifically of the 32nd Degree of the Scottish Rite.

Other than the cheap knock offs sold by outfits like Sears Roebuck, I had no clue as to the origins of the tree shaped tombstones until I found this little signature on the bit of log supporting a book.  Anthony Ambrosini appears to have been the supervisor of a cemetery in St. Paul.  He must have also had a stone cutting business, which does not surprise given the dominance of Italians in that field.  More research ahead on this lead.

And now, my new favorite tree shaped tombstone.

John Hauenstein was a local brewer.  His company stayed in business just long enough for me to have tried a few sips of his wares.  Evidently he had served with pride in the military.  Note the musket on the left side.

Just amazing detail.  Look at the holes in the canteen strap.  And remember, this is carved from stone.

Half way up we have a jaunty little owl.  I do not know what the initials mean.  But to see the crowning glory of this magnificent specimen you have to go all the way to the top....

It is John Hauenstein's army hat!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Tree Shaped Tombstones-Hitting the Jackpot, part 1

While on our road trip to South Dakota I decided to test my theories regarding the frequency of tree shaped tombstones.  Specifically the notion that German communities might have more of them.  So I accumulated a few spousal good will points by patiently sitting through visits to quilt shops and the like, in exchange for a visit to the cemeteries at New Ulm Minnesota.

New Ulm is about as German as you can get in this part of the Midwest, and it is also a very strong, cohesive place.  It was you see one of the few existing towns that successfully fought off a full scale Indian attack back during the Sioux Uprising.  The locals take pride in their town and their heritage.  And it shows, the City Cemetery at New Ulm is neat, well maintained and incidentally contains the greatest trove of tree shaped tomb stones I have so far located.

It has everything you could wish for in that regard.

For sheer quantity you encounter entire groves of "trees".  Here are seven in one shot.

If you like otherwise rare forms, consider this planter style piece.  I had seen two previously.  I think New Ulm had nine or ten.

Here is a variety I had not encountered before.  It is twin trees, representing husband and wife, clutching limbs for eternity.  And on those limbs...

Two doves, one presumably representing each of them, together for all time.

On another tree we have a tiny, easily missed detail....a bird on a nest.

And another version of the "sheaf and sickle" that I have seen once before.  This one lacks the bizarre "chicken leg" seen on the earlier example.

The New Ulm visit took longer than I thought it would as I strode from one row to the next snapping pictures.  Some of the neat little details I only noticed after the fact.

Come back Wednesday and I will show you a few entirely new finds, including what I must now promote to my all time favorite!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Days of Industry and Sloth

An odd time of year.  Snow and cold impose their limitations.  The holidays have come and gone.  A new calendar to ponder.  Another birthday.

Life has a strange pace these days.  My ER work gets concentrated so that I will have a week or two of furious work.  Followed by stretches of not much going on.

It is passing strange.

I typically work 12 hour shifts, with several day or night shifts in succession.  With day shifts you are just a very busy, but still human, being.  Work, commute, sleep, caffeinate, repeat.  With night shifts you become a sort of shade or wraith.  I am as Nosferatu walking quietly in the darkling hours, my presence going unnoticed by most.  When the sun rises I retire to a quiet curtained place and to a restless sleep, ever trying to repay a sleep debt that gradually accumulates like compound interest.

And then I have a week or so with nothing more demanding than routine domestic responsibilities.  Shovel snow when it arrives.  Clean the bathroom floors that have somehow become part of my household duties.

I spend more time than is proper just lounging about in-to call things by their proper name-pajamas. 

I should have more time for reading, and to catch up on movies and such.  But when you have over the years read as much as I have, it becomes more difficult to find books that grab attention and hold it more than a hundred pages.  And other than catching up on back episodes of The Big Bang Theory I don’t find much worthwhile for video entertainment.  Even the few movies I had looked forward to in the year past, Prometheus and The Hobbit, were less than they should have been.  It seems as if it is no longer considered sufficient to make a good solid movie, you have to create a set up for sequels, theme park rides and video game adaptations.

In any event, I am feeling a bit pensive.  Not because of the birthday, although they will do that sometimes.  I am simply pondering what life should look like.

And I think of zeppelins.  Not because of the post holiday pounds, although they also will do that sometimes. 

It’s just that as our Duties and Responsibilities lessen it feels as if the mooring lines holding us down are fewer.  The kids are grown up and have become welcome but intermittent presences.  I have little love of "stuff" and so might have put enough away for the future to afford a frugal life of lighter employ.  Sure, you can always save more money.  In fact my Teutonic mindset says you should always should.  But my work has taught me that too much preparation can be a trap as dangerous as too little.

You might work hard to age 70 and drop dead a month later. You also might live to 110 and outlast any reasonable accumulation of nuts and acorns.

So I look at our life ahead as if it were a majestic airship, held to earth by a diminishing number of cables.  When do you let the last few loose?  And will the winds above and beyond be raging gales pushing you to storm wracked peaks?  Or gentle zephyrs lifting you over green and happy places?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

America Gets Saved by the Tax Collectors!

Ship names have always fascinated me.  Most of the great ones are from the Age of Sail, although there are exceptions.  It is said for instance that Winston Churchill more than once proposed the name Cromwell for a battleship.  Final approval from the King was not forthcoming.  Jeez, you execute one reigning monarch and people remember it for centuries!

While doing a bit of reading on the endless English-French conflict of the 18th to 19th centuries I came across this little tidbit from 1761:

“Soon sixteen line-of-battle ships had been pledged, whose names would proclaim the civic virtue of their donors:  the Langedoc, the Ville de Paris, the Diligent (sponsored by the postmasters), the Zealous (by the tax collectors), the Useful (a hopeful public-relations effort by the farmers-general), and (fashionably but with some effrontery) the Citizen, by the court bankers and military financiers.”

This quote is from the delightful book That Sweet Enemy by Robert and Isabelle Tombs.

To appreciate just how bizarre the above naming system really is you need to know that the court bankers and military financiers were totally corrupt.  Also that the farmers-general had nothing to do with farming.  They were simply another species of tax collectors.  In effect under the old French monarchy the collection of taxes and fees for some things was subcontracted, literally “farmed out” to private individuals whose ethics in the pursuit of same were about what you would expect. They in fact went so far as to build a "Farmers-general wall" around Paris so that nobody could get in or out without paying their fair share!

So what became of these ships?  It struck me that they would have been about the right vintage to have been part of the French effort to support the American Revolution.  And this was true.

The final victory of George Washington and the Continental Army came at Yorktown in 1781.  But it was only made possible by the presence of a French fleet that kept the Royal Navy from effecting an evacuation.  If one looks among the line of battle for the French we find the:

Zele (Zealous) a 74 gun ship of the line, and
Citoyen (Citizen), another 74.

So one has to wonder just a little, did the Americans and their allies, fighting and striving to throw off the yokes of unfair taxation and forced support of an oppressive military presence find any irony in the fact that their ultimate victory was made possible in part by the equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service and the Military Industrial Complex?

As to the other ships mentioned the 80 gun Languedoc and the mighty 104 gun Ville de Paris were also present at Yorktown.  The Diligent was not, and I have found little mention of her career.  But what of the Useful, or in the proper French, the Utile?

What sort of career would you imagine for a ship funded by the most avaricious of tax collectors?  Did you vote for short and sordid?  

Could this be the same ship?

Oh, it really wants to fit.  The article describes a “former French warship” named Utile that had been acquired by the French East India Company.  The date 1761 fits, if closely.  It would have had to have been one of the first of the subscribed ships finished and would have then been detailed off to the East India Company.

And the account of taking on a cargo of illegal slaves and then being shipwrecked on a desolate Indian Ocean island?  Just the behaviour and just desserts (and deserts) one would imagine for tax collectors!

Additional odd notes:  some of the castaways from the wreck of the Utile eventually escaped by raft to the Mascarene Islands where they wandered among the palms.    .  

Alas for assigning an ignominious career to the Utile of the tax collectors.  Ship names are so often reused and I have found passing reference to a 58 gun vessel that was launched in a more plausible 1764, then "deleted" in 1771.  Facts can sometimes mar an otherwise satisfying story.

But let history record that the weasels of the farmers-general did not come up with enough money for a proper 74 gun ship. Tax revenues always seem to come up short.  Or did they pocket the difference?