Friday, November 29, 2013

From the Mending Box

As mentioned the other day, I brought home some items from the family farm, now an abandoned ghost of a place.  One thing I carried back was a series of several small boxes that appeared to have my grandmother's collection of mending supplies.  Buttons, needles, and just odd stuff that found its way in there I guess.  Many of the buttons had swatches of cloth still stuck on them.  I guess when clothing wore out grandma would snip the buttons off in case some similar garment needed a new button.  I wonder how many "lives" these buttons had.  But that is certainly not the only thing I wonder about.

Overall buttons, probably 1930's vintage.  I wonder if they came from my dad's outfit or one of his brothers'.  Husky Lad seems to be out of business but Big Yank is still around!

Some of the smaller items were in this odd little jar circa 1960.  Who knew they made extra meat baby food.  The little tyke does look rather carnivorous.  Hmmm, I used to visit the farm sometimes.  This might be me.

Here are two views of what appears to be a serving spoon made out of, of all things, lead.  It is so soft it would bend if you scooped up a good sized meatball.

The initials are of no known family members

Here's another small enigma.

Invite infection?  Why indeed?  I suppose the intent was to make folks relax about tetanus.

The mending box had all manner of odds and ends in it.  Small items of small value.  But my frugal forebears could not stand the idea of parting with any of it.  Oh, there was also this......

I wonder how many hours they spent hunting for this?  It probably still has pinch marks on it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Hewing Bee. Also Ghost Cows.

You find all sorts of interesting things cleaning out a very old house.  Out at the family farmstead I encountered a copy of the June 16th, 1922 Norwood Times.  It was a commemorative edition, marking the 50th Anniversary of Norwood Minnesota.

It had a lot of recollections of pioneer times, presumably by greybeards who remembered things first hand.  I found the accounts of how log buildings were constructed to be fascinating....because I could walk out to the Civil War era barn and see exactly what was being described!

"The barn was also built of logs, ten to fourteen high, either shingle or straw roof, with no windows for light, the cracks between the logs were plastered with mortar that I am unable to describe with polite words."

There you have it.  Only six tiers of logs visible in this view, they extend up a bit into the next story of the "modern" barn.

Just in case you wanted a closer view of that mortar that can't be described with polite words.  The long structure attached to the wall is a feeding trough for calves.  It is hand made and who knows how old.

In another slightly newer part of the barn, maybe late 1860s, you can see traces of exactly how the thing was built.  Here is an account from the Norwood Times called Building the Old Log House

"Later on when the country became more settled and anyone wanted to build a house, or barn, he would engage his neighbors and have a hewing bee.  A group of men would go into the woods and select and cut down trees and saw off the desired lengths.  The next group would follow and cut off large chips on two sides.  The hewers came next with their broad axes and made a straight mark with a chalk line, the whole length of the log and then hew it smooth on two sides until it was about six to eight inches in diameter.  Rafters were also hewn."

You can still see the lateral "chip marks" placed regularly before the guys with the broad axes, or perhaps in this instance saws, came along to flatten off the sides.  Note also the wooden peg holding this onto the slotted cross beam.  Were iron spikes in short supply or were they just building according to German traditions they brought with them from the old country?

Even the newer parts of the barn carry memories.  I recall this ladder up into the hay loft as being the entry point to a magical place where you could build forts, chase the barn cats.  Probably lose a shoe once in a while.  It is no longer a safe place to explore.

Barns have a nostalgic appeal in their own way.  Houses remember those who lived and died in them. Barns remember a daily cycle of hard work.  Times change for people.  But the needs of cows remain more or less the same.  Here after twenty years of abandonment we find a little patch of hay waiting to be tossed....and the pitchfork with which to do it.

Ghostly cows wait patiently for farmers long, long gone.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Farewell to the Family Farm

"Our" farm.  The term is apt.  My family arrived there in 1857.  Nobody had worked the land prior to that.  They bought it from a man who got it as a grant after service in the War with Mexico.  He never went near the place.  And before that....Lakota following the bison.  And as they found out to their eternal grief, the native sense of ownership differed a great deal from that of the encroaching white man.

It was an active farm until about 15 years ago.  A couple of aged bachelor farmers hung on until the last one died at age 90, still telling wild tales he heard from his grandmother who had been a young bride on the homestead during the Civil War.

It was an old fashioned German farm.  Crops, dairy cattle, pigs, chickens, a little of everything.  The soil was fertile and the family frugal, so they prospered over the years.

They never had to modernize too much, and were in fact a bit suspicious of change.  So the old stood alongside the, well alongside the slightly less old.

When the place finally became vacant the buildings just seemed to give up hope.  Ghosts held sway. Roughly a dozen people were born in the old farmhouse.  Roughly the same number died there.  A young son trampled by runaway horses in 1885.  All but one of my grandfather's siblings taken by diphtheria in the 1890s.

My father, now 91 and in a nursing home, is the last person living who was there when the place was fully alive.  He was offered a chance to go visit it recently.  He said he was just too tired.

A nice young couple have purchased the home acreage (the cropland was sold off a while ago).  They will of necessity raze some of the old buildings, but they will also bring the place back to life.  They have a new baby.  They are planning a couple more.  The man intends to brew beer in the old milk house.

They are even talking about raising a few bison, bringing history around full circle.

Some images from a farewell trip.

The house is circa 1875.  Parts of the barn are circa 1860, with newer sections just piled up on top.

One item I was tasked with retrieving was an antique bed and headboard.  When we dismantled the bed frame we found the bold claim VERMIN PROOF marked on it.  My wife will be pleased.

My kids are old enough not to fall for it, but I wonder how many youngsters today would look at this turn of the (last) century school writing slate and think:  "Hmmm...pretty early model iPad there."

Also up in the attic, an "Indianapolis Kraut Cutter".  This is only one part.  The whole thing stands about four feet tall and looks like it would make short work indeed of a head of cabbage.

As I said, ghosts hold sway here, but friendly ghosts.  I found a huge stash of my grandmothers's mending things.  Hundreds and hundreds of buttons.  She died forty years ago and I am sure my fingers were the first ones since then to touch the collection of buttons from coats, overalls, long underwear.  She saved every one of them and no doubt spent many a winter evening fixing and mending so as to get just a little more wear out of things.  No need to buy new...

I do not think the garden was kept up after her death.  But outside the house I found her watering can. It looks as if it was set down yesterday.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Robot Dragster Project - Final Chapter

Last spring my robotics students undertook an ambitious project, building a remote control dragster. Our goal was to, at a minimum, make something that would exceed the legal speed limit.

It was a project fraught with technical difficulties including a crash in early testing that broke it in half!   OUCH!!!!!

But the really hard thing to accept was that we never had a chance to do an actual road test.  Last spring winter just went on and on.  The streets were covered in ice and crud.  In the end we just ran out of class time.

So the Dragster sat in my basement for six months.

But it did get its moment of glory.  After the Machines Behaving Badly event we still had a class session left.  (It does not make sense in Wisconsin to schedule an event on the Saturday when deer season begins.  No, not at all.)

For the "extra" session I brought out a number of robot toys including the mothballed dragster.  And by gosh we actually got a road test in.  I think the batteries were a bit weak but the two kids who drove it managed to steer it straight and true...

Notice that at the end our novice driver even managed to make the turn rather than plow into the curb. I had used my remote switch to power off the motor by that point.

Top speed?  Well, a disappointing 16 miles per hour.  Much more could be attained I am sure.  But, there is this consolation.....we were testing on school property, and the speed limit is....?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Goodbye Drew

I found myself standing by a road in a miniscule community in northern Wisconsin.  I was taking a few pictures of a just demolished tavern when a vehicle pulled up next to me.  The driver looked at me as if I were doing something peculiar, which I suppose I was.

He was my age and had a grizzled beard similar to mine so I just decided to go with the flow.

"Shame they wrecked the old place."

He allowed as how that was true and said:  "My mom told me they were knocking down my dad's old office", adding perhaps needlessly "He was an alcoholic."

We are losing a lot of taverns in Wisconsin.  It is part of a larger trend here and elsewhere.  Local pubs in England are fading fast too.

It is due to a combination of things, some good, some bad.  People live in spread out suburban areas now, and society does not tolerate drunk driving.  People drink at home with alcohol they can purchase cheaply at Big Box stores.  We are collectively less social, turning inward to television, video games and the internet.

I have passed more than a few pleasant evenings in taverns, and I sorrow for their slow, sad march to extinction.  Here are a few pictures of one on the day of its destruction.

I think it is interesting that somebody removed the generic part of the sign, it probably advertised Budweiser or some such, and left the personal part.

They must have tried to be some kind of sports bar at one point.  A place where folks might go to watch the Packers game.  So many televisions...

Parts of this place were fairly old.  There was a stone foundation under one section.  Note also this pile of marked bricks circa 1910.

A good tavern is much more than a building.  It is also the people who pass through its doors.  Who brought this teddy bear in?

You have to squint to make it out but at some point the words "Brad is fat, ha, ha, ha." were painted on this surface.

Farewell, Drew's Tavern.  You have been standing padlocked for as long as I have been driving down this road.  No doubt there were good times had by Brad and the other patrons back in the day.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Final Test

Although I now work as an Emergency Room doc my initial training was in a Family Practice residency.  I finished that in 1985, but to be officially Board Certified I had to pass an exam.

What a lot of folks probably do not realize is that to stay Certified you have to keep taking the darned thing every seven years.  My lawyer friends cringe at the thought of having to repeat Bar Exams, so I think this is something that the medical profession (Family Practice was first but I think it is general now) can take pride in.

I was a smart monkey back in the day.  I passed Boards with very nice scores and did so without bothering to study.  I think one time my brother and I helped my parents move all day, then went out for well deserved pitchers of day I took the exam and scored in the 85% percentile.

But this time I was worried.  Having spent six years in an intense but somewhat limited scope of practice there were a lot of things I did not know.  New outpatient diabetes drugs.  Changes in guidelines for mammogram screening.  Details of post op care following cardiac bypass surgery.

So I fretted a lot, studied a little, then finally decided to just show up and give it my best shot.  If I flunked it, well, time to retire.  This was not an entirely unappealing concept.

The first couple of times I took the exam in a big hotel ballroom.  A couple of hundred folks scratching away with pencils, filling in circles to answer multiple choice questions.

Now it is all computer based.  And kind of an odd experience.

You show up at a "test center".  Basically a computer lab that runs exams for all kinds of purposes. They take their security very seriously at these places.  You have to show ID to prove you really are who you claim to be.  You have to roll up your pants legs to prove you don't have a smart phone holstered somewhere.  They scan you with a metal detector wand.  You do get (one) pair of glasses allowed but I bet if you put a Google Glasses sticker on them you'd hear about it.

After passing through what approximates airport security you get to go to Dilbertville.  A room full of cubicles each with its own computer terminal.  Cameras watch you all the time.

I expect I did alright on the test.  I signed an agreement not to talk about specific content but there are a few things I can observe for the benefit of other grizzled veterans undertaking this or similar tasks.

1. Working in ER is most excellent preparation for this sort of exam.  On a constant basis I get presented with scraps and bits of information, sometimes conflicting.  I have to quickly consider a range of possible diagnoses and whittle it down fast.  This is very useful when you get a one paragraph scenario and options A through D as answers.  Even when I did not instantly know the right answer I could rattle the decision tree efficiently.  In the real world you often narrow it down to a couple of choices and run tests to confirm your ideas.  In the Unreal world you narrow it down and sometimes just pick the best of two options.

2. After three decades of doing this sort of thing I really have seen almost everything.  I can be fooled, but the Universe has to work at it a bit.  And with 9 hours of sleep and three cups of morning coffee on my side, it has to work pretty hard.

3. Board exams always, always have a few pet diseases.  I am not going to name it but one particular obscure problem appears more than once on any exam you will ever take.  It is a rare bird.  So rare in fact that it is The Great White Whale of diagnoses, the sort of thing that physicians spend an entire career obsessively chasing.  Most of us never find one.

4. I am a probably bit more computer savvy than most physicians of my generation.  Constant use of computers makes an exam of this sort seem familiar.  EKGs still look like scratches and scribbles though, there is something about them that translates poorly to a screen.

I learned some things preparing for this exam so I guess it is a good thing to do.  In the preliminary stages of studying I did a batch of online "modules" from the American Board of Family Medicine. They were very difficult indeed.  I am quite sure that the Knowledge Masters do this on purpose. Rather like swinging a weighted bat in the on deck circle.  If their intent was to scare me into additional study it was a worthy one.  And a successful one as well.

I will be 57 in a few months.  I am not planning on working much after 60.  So this really should be the last time I have to gear up for this experience.  It will be interesting to see if my pervasive fever dreams of being  unprepared for an exam start to fade.  But I wonder, do the things we fear in our own depths ever really change?

Well, time to go hunt whales.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Easily rests the head that wears the Nerd Crown

My middle school combat robotics class has reached its kinetic conclusion.  All the supplies are boxed up until next year.

Most years I then proceed to an " Advanced Robotics" class with a smaller group.  We have done some fun projects in the past.  But this year other duties call, so no dice.  Or maybe just dice...

I did agree to reprise last year's Dungeons and Dragons group.  It was an implausible success, and of the many classes I have done over the years (about 15 basic robotics, 6 advanced ones) it was by far the easiest one to do.  I understand that the group I had last spring continued to meet and play on their own all summer.  Heck, they may still be doing so.

I was surprised to learn that this year's D & D class filled almost instantly.  They could have filled it 4 times over.

Maybe I should not be surprised after all.  Call it the Big Bang Effect but it is fashionable to be a nerd these days.  Nerds go on to get jobs.  Nerds can troubleshoot smartphone problems for cheerleaders.

Hey, it worked out for me.  I have a good job.  I am married to a smart lady who claims to have been a cheerleader (I know its not true but so what).  I am a grown up pretending to be a kid.  They are kids who are ahead of the game of becoming grownups.

I am it seems, the King of the Nerds.

Dogs Playing Dungeons and Dragons!

I like any variation on Dogs playing Poker.  The above is by a fellow named Jay Babcock.  He ran a successful kickstarter campaign selling prints of this.  You might want one.  I might want one....


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Machines Behaving Badly - After Action Report, November 2013

Running all day, fixing a radio failure here, a dead battery there, passing out a little encouragement when needed to a disappointed contestant.  I took a grand total of one picture at the event.  Behold, Robot Cemetery...

Fortunately for the historic record the local news was there and did a rather nice bit on the action. Only 1:41 and well worth the viewing...

The Robot Apocalypse comes to Middle School

We threw a few audience volunteers into the fray and they did quite well.  You may note a fair number of fancy, heavily armed robots in the mechanical boneyard.  As usual the grand prize was won by a quiet kid with a simple design...who could drive with ferocious concentration and discipline.  Not the kind of kid who gets picked first on sports teams.  But a champion today.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Eve of Chaos - 2013

Another "Machines Behaving Badly" tournament tomorrow.  It is approximately our 13th annual, maybe number 15 overall since we did the silly class twice a couple of years.  I should be excited, it is a fun event.  Gleeful kids, parents proud of what their young'uns have accomplished, a chance to see some old friends.

Maybe it is just bad timing.

I write to express my whimsical side.  But sometimes you go through stretches where the harder realities of the life can't be ignored.

At my age you can pretend to be a kid in some ways but the truth is that my generation are the Grown Ups of the world.  When things need to be done there is no dodging obligations.

My work, my wife and kids, all doing great.  Some other components of the family, less so.

So apologies if a few whiffs of maudlin creep in around the edges over the next couple of months.

But for tonight I will go to sleep pondering the minutia of Swiss brackets versus double elimination, and which frequencies to use, and how we will work in volunteer drivers from the audience.

Tomorrow hyperactive kids will drive their flimsy robotic chariots into battle, either to the giddy heights of victory or to the sudden abrupt surprise of a mangling encounter with spinning machinery. Bad puns are likely.  Monty Python sound effects a near certainty.

Combat robotics as technical education.  And as performance art.  And as therapy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Robots of November - Part Four

A round up of some more robots, with a few observations.

Decent weapon, it is some kind of masonry saw that will chew but not bite in.  Poor weight distribution even with all the battery power at the back.  We last saw this robot coming in third in our "robot race" video.

Four wheel drive pushers have a significant advantage.  Most matches that end dramatically do so when a victim is pushed into arena hazards.  I am not sure what that little electronic device is on the front.  Many of the kids are working quite independently now.  Seems to have its name written on the side in hot glue.

I am down to my last few scraps of quarter inch polycarbonate.  When sharpened it makes a nice weapon blade.  Lighter than steel and much easier to work with.  Robot has a very narrow wheel base and should be easy to tip.  Sometimes a machine like this can self right by powering up the weapon and bouncing around the arena until it lands right side up again.

Another four wheeled pusher. But with the wheels dangerously exposed.....

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Unlucky Man

When visiting the old family farmstead I had to go up the road a mile and pay my respects to several generations of my predecessors.  While doing so I noticed this sad sight:

Otto P. Ochsner.  Geboren (born) 1896.  Gestorben (died) 9 November 1918.  The star and the adjacent marker indicate he was a soldier.

The community he came from was almost entirely German and the wording of his tombstone suggests that was his native tongue.  He probably had a lot in common with the soldiers in the trenches on the other side of No Man's Land.  He would have had no difficulty at all walking out and talking with them, perhaps shaking their hands.

If only he had not been killed in action two days before the Armistice.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Boring Blog Maintenance Stuff

Just a few little changes.  Over on the Blog List I have dropped the We Dig Vindolanda link.  It was a site I had a hand in administering.  But a decision was made recently to "mothball" the site on 15 November.  It is/was an ancient site by internet standards and the effort to revamp it to current standards was felt to not be worth it.

We Dig initially existed to do two things.  It was a social site, a place where volunteer excavators could stay in touch in the off season and to coordinate rides, trips to the pub etc during the summer.  This function has largely switched over to other social media venues.

It also did yeoman service as a way to follow the excavations, to look back at the history of the site, maybe show a few odd artifacts (only after the supervising archeologists approved of course).

After more than a few false starts the organization running the Vindolanda excavation has started their own blog.  So far it is quite good, and is linked in the new Blog List.


The other link changes reflect this and that.  Some blogs fizzle out and are not updated often enough. Some have political stances that might rile folks up.  The two "political" sites I currently link to, Borepatch and The Gormogons, are done by folks who have opinions I do not entirely share...but are witty and thought provoking.


And so it goes, three days a week unless I am traveling, then it might be less or more.  Thanks for stopping in.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Robots of November - Part Three

Ah the small joys of teaching*.  I have had some students take my robotics class each of the three years of middle school.  After a while you start looking forward to seeing the brighter ones return. You have the luxury of sitting back, looking at what they have done with the knowledge you have imparted to them and with a satisfied sigh say to yourself...

"My God, what have I done!?"

I apologize for holding the camera at the wrong angle but if you crane your neck a bit you will see the testing of a three pound robot, four wheel drive, that has a ping pong ball machine gun.  It has a six shot magazine and can fire single rounds or full auto.  I have never seen anything like it.

Of course it will not actually do any damage despite the impressive muzzle velocity.  I suggested writing insults on the pings.

A close up view.  It operates with two small motors spinning foam disks, sort of like a pitching machine.  Like the paint job too. Also the thumb tack studded wheels.

We are getting far enough along in the process that about half the class is test driving.  An impromptu race, no weapons allowed.

Some fun stuff this year.  All the kids are enthusiastic and the designs are varied.  It is remarkable what can be done with zero shop access and a budget of twenty dollars per student.  Of course the robots are inherently flimsy and will be bashed into little bits under combat conditions.

That is kind of the point.

* Truth on the internet.  I am not an official teacher.  I do this in my spare time working as an ER doc.  I have never taken an education credit in my life, and have every expectation of never having to do so!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jesus at the Surplus Store

I don't know where Axman Surplus gets their stuff.  It is a store where it pays to visit often, there is usually something good that has turned up.  Last visit it was some high quality backpacks.  The time before I scored two huge rolls of thin polycarbonate for my robotics class.

Then there are the semi - permanent display items....not for sale.

A somewhat cartoonish Jesus has been hanging around the place for about a year now.  He seems to favor the more human aspect of the human/Divine dual nature.  Specifically he looks like some kind of soulful hipster.

An enigmatic face.  You have to speculate on what sort of teachings He would come up with.  The chain around his neck holds a medallion.

Is this a plea for tolerance?  Or just an admonition for kids not to climb on Him?  But I thought He suffered the children to come to Him?

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Robots of November - Part Two

I really like this robot.  The builder is a fun kid with just the right amount of gleeful malice.

This is a vertical spinner, not an easy thing to build.  Here is a very short vid clip....I think it will work better with a couple of small spikes in the weapon arm.

There are quite a few robots that have just gone for brute pushing force.  I sometimes ban four wheel drive robots but this year found myself with a large number of servos salvaged from the remains of robots in previous tournaments.  And since my only rules are:  "No flamethrowers, no hand grenades and no live animals", I could not exactly ban them this year:

A rather spikey competitor.  The wheels are studded with thumbtacks to get better traction on the wood floor arena.

They also make a nice clicky noise when they run.

One of the hardest designs to pull off successfully is one which has an outer shell spinning around the robot.  Here is an ambitious work in progress...

I think the configuration of the steak knives is less than optimal, but when the Tupperware bowl is fitted onto the base, with its Barbie Jeep gearbox, it should be impressive.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Robots of November - Part One

I have been a little distracted by other things and so have not been keeping you updated on my ongoing middle school robotics class.  I have a fine bunch of students this year and they are building some rather imaginative 3 pound combat robots.  I think a few of them deserve a quick mention.  Remember that these are works in progress, the tournament is not for three weeks.

This one has me a little worried.  It has some "home brewed" electronics on it.  The intent is to jam electrodes into the enemy robot and fry the electronics with a spark generator.  I should mention that the electronics are all mine, they get reused from one year to the next.  I don't know whether this thing will actually work, but I assume the malevolent 8th grader who spawned this atrocity is going for this:

I let kids take the projects home with them.  Heck, adult input does not seem to have any major positive effect.  I have never had a kid build a tank tread robot.  For some reason when working at home they shortened up the treads.  Makes it rather less effective I think.

This robot's weapon is basically...a big stick.  It has a Barby Jeep gear box driving a good sized hunk of lumber.  The video below is short and the robot was hindered by an undetected low battery, but this thing will put the wood to a few opponents....

More up and coming combatants in the days ahead.  Oh, and after years of only rewarding my hard working volunteers with gratitude and a Thai food dinner to follow, this year there are T-shirts....