Friday, February 28, 2014

On Nicknames

 "Many are my names in many countries. Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not."   

                                                  From The Lord of the Rings

Nicknames seem to be less common now than in times past. About the only folks who go in for them these days are Rappers.  But of course most of us have one or more "internet" names.  Given the technology you could consider these the equivalent of a nom de plume. Nom de keyboard I guess.  All too many that I see are dreadful, but perhaps I am biased by the silly spam that comes my way from "lonelychick18" and her(?) ilk.

My own internet "nicknames" each have a meaning.

For this blog I go as 'Tacitus2".  This is a carryover from a site I sometimes visit to chat politics.  There is a fine quote from the original Tacitus, historian extraordinaire of Imperial Rome, one I thought applied well to political discourse: 

"It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks."

In any case I thought it a suitable mantra, especially in a setting where I was one of the few Conservative voices.  The "2" was added when a particularly crabby fellow commentator took exception to comments by a fellow who had the moniker earlier but got fed up and left the forum.  I considered the possibility of Tacitus being a generic Conservative name, sort of like Dread Pirate Roberts, but decided it was better to not confuse and annoy people simultaneously.

On archaeological fora I go by the name Badger.  The relevance is obviously a digging creature, but takes note as well of my black and white color scheme with regard to hair and beard.  And of course I am from Wisconsin, a state whose University is represented by its Spirit Animal/Mascot/totem, Bucky Badger:

Perhaps my earliest username did not even specifically relate to the internet.  Back when you could still get a daily newspaper thicker than a couple of Kleenex, our regional paper had a section called Bulletin Board. I styled myself "Bab's Trophy Husband". Not because spouse is named Barbara or anything close to it.  No, I think I was inspired by the dedication to Don Marquis' classic "Archy and Mehetibel".

"To Babs.  With Babs knows what and Babs knows why."

I don't know quite what it means, but for the record Marquis' wife was not named Barbara either.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Detritus of Parenthood

We are on the young side of our local peer group, so you would imagine that Wife and I would have been on the receiving end of some sage advice regarding the "Empty Nest Syndrome".  You know, how life radically changes once the last kid gets so tired of living at home that they decamp for some squalid quarters elsewhere.

But it has not actually been as advertised.

Maybe because so many households have the young folks keep popping back in for a few months stay between stretches of borderline economic viability.  For the record in our house gone means gone.  I tell them "This is now a Lifeboat, not a Cruise Ship".

You do notice a few changes.  Milk consumption dropped radically in the post kid era.  We now buy it by the half gallon and sometimes toss a bit of that after a while.  Once we could have used a pipeline run direct from the supermarket.

But like a lot of households we have reminders of the kids all over the place.  But since neither the household nor the kids are typical, these reminders are not the usual sports trophies and graduation photos....

A Russian surplus gas mask sits next to a muskrat trap.  The keen eyed will also note the entire "Captain Underpants" series of silly kids books.

Six pounds of cheese dip.  I seem to recall it was a gift to one of my sons from a long forgotten girl friend.  It is not something you would really want to eat, but one does feel a reluctance to toss it.  Oh, not for any sentimental reasons, just thinking how long you could survive on this holed up in some future unspecified Apocalyptic event.

A monkey carved from a coconut.  This actually could be their mother's fault.  She likes her some Thrift Sales.

A disco ball is just such a convenient place to park a fez.

Uh, this is sort of odd.  The Wrench/Knife of Truth and Justice.  It looks to have been cobbled together from part of one of our combat robots.  With the benefit of hindsight, was it really a good idea to put Mechanized Carnage into the hands of someone with this kind of sense of humor?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On the Cold Frontier

In my last post I discussed hairy, ravenous hordes using arctic weather to breach the defenses of civilization.  So it was in 406 with pillaging Germanic barbarians on the Rhine frontier.

And so it is in 2014 on the West Hill Front.

Bunnies.  Damn them.

Every winter I put up a three foot fence around some succulent shrubs.  The enemy has been lurking about waiting, waiting.  And the last snow fall was deep enough to let them just hop on over.

Inside the perimeter.  The object with a stem is a berry fallen off the tree above.  Pathetic, misinformed robins are feeding there and I do not begrudge them.  The objects without stems.  Well, not berries.

I am constrained by practical considerations.  Direct action might not be legal, although there is a little wiggle room for pellet guns. But They come by night.  So I tromped down a trench all around the fence, that should hold them for a while.  Unless it snows again.

In some ways this is less The Somme than the Korean DMZ.  Lots of fences (my request for barbed wire was turned down), but more psychological warfare than anything else.

It has been a decade or so since the Bunny commandos breached the wire.  Last time I made a cardboard cutout of a severed rabbit head, complete with a large X in place of an eye.  I mounted it on a pike as a warning.  It seemed to work, although spring thaw probably helped.

But while I think it bothered the Bunnies a bit, it bothered the Wife more, so I am confined to such engineering activities as will not greatly alarm the new neighbors next door.


Regular posting schedule, M/W/Fri will return shortly.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Not with a Bang but a Shiver

The irregular circumstances alluded to last post are under excellent control.  Well wishers and those who have addressed prayers to various points of the Celestial Planes, thank you all.

At this point the biggest inconvenience for me personally is being in sole charge of the Villa for a while. It does not require the constant labor that it did before the filli moved out, but there are lots of things to keep up on.

Last night it snowed.  With emphasis.  Heavy, wet stuff at about an inch an hour.  I was chatting on the phone with my brother, watching the flakes pound down and bewailing the predicted sub-zero stretch that will follow next week.

He and I have shared some fun weeks digging Roman sites, so my musings were running in that direction.  I was talking about how civilizations really fall, what triggers the final collapse of things that have been limping along.  You see this in Roman Britain. One year folks are managing.  Maybe they are a little less prosperous.  Maybe the best applicant for village constable is that hulking Goth lad who married the merchant's daughter last year.  You remember, at the bachelor party his pals burned the wine shop so all we have to drink now is weak local beer?

And then it happens.  Archaeologists centuries later find a thick layer of dark fill indicating that the drains went uncleaned and sewage flooded the streets.  Real building activity stops and repair work is done by half wits who slop things together and figure that if the wind comes through gaps in the walls it must be how Wotan wants things.

I was making this point, and comparing it to the late winter funk that lies heavy on my area.  Municipal budgets are tight.  There are shortages of sand and salt.  On a civic level and even as individual property owners it is tempting to just let the snow sit there until Wotan decides to melt it.  It is a seductive notion, and one that must be resisted.

And as I was saying these words there were a series of bright flashes in the sky and the power went off all over town.

Lightning?  Desperate squirrels crawling into transformers for a millisecond of warmth before being vaporized?  UFOs?  Wotan? Not sure.

So I got an evening of the Dark Ages.  You light a few candles.  Read by flashlight for a while.  Sip a beer sitting on the sofa in a dimly lit room.  Man, The Darks must have been boring.

Many of my Progressive friends get very exercised about Global Warming, now officially re-flagged as Climate Change.  Hey, I agree with them on various levels.  I have seen places where glaciers are in retreat.  I concur that human activity "warms the room". But as I shiver my slow path around the perimeter of the Villa, plowing down to honest cement sidewalks (and helping a fallen old lady to boot!), I have to wonder if the Science is yet rock solid on questions of magnitude, and time frame, and what the heck we can effectively do about it.

In some circles this would make me a Denier, but I honestly consider myself more a Thinker on the subject.

Yes, Climate Change kills.  Droughts and tsunamis and volcanic eruptions and what not.  But lets not forget 406 AD.

What, you have forgotten?

That was the year it got so cold that supposedly the Rhine river froze solid and the barbarians just walked across it.

Maybe Rod Serling, Progressive icon and genuine genius, got it right back in 1961.  The Midnight Sun was a Season Three episode of the Twilight Zone that spent most of the show chronicling the slowly decaying lives of a handful of survivors on an Earth that had moved too close to the Sun.  Of course Rod would always throw in the twist.  The sweating, frantic woman who faints awakens to soothing coolness.  It was all a dream, brought on by a raging fever.  But she was better now, she would survive the illness.  Only to die soon as the Earth had drifted too far from the Sun and a handful of survivors were huddled together in a freezing world, snow pounding down heavily outside their windows.

And for the record, the shocking thermometer reading in the final scene was -10 F.

Sheesh, around here that has qualified as a warm snap once or twice this winter.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Of Oracles and Haruspex

We live in Modern Times.  Even for people of Faith, Science is all pervasive.  And of course for many, Science is their Faith.

Medicine is where Science contacts our lives most intimately.  And in some peculiar ways Medicine preserves some of our very oldest Belief systems.

We have our Radiologists.  These are the new Delphic Oracles.  Like their ancient predecessors they sit in darkened places and make ambiguous pronouncements.  Often their answer comes back as an additional request.  The Oracle would like another offering. MRI is suggested for additional correlation.

And we have our Pathologists.  Their job as of old is to act as Haruspex, the reader of the entrails. Less flighty than their kindred functionaries the Augers who read the future in flocks of birds, the opinions of the Haruspex need to be given great weight.

Well, the entrails having been read I shall be taking a short sabbatical from writing Detritus of Empire. Maybe a week or so. It will be my first holiday since starting to broadcast my ramblings almost three years ago.

Don't fret, things are going to be fine. I will be banking some Sickness-n-Health Points but not collecting on the Death-do-us-Part option.

Think some good thoughts.  Those close enough to do so directly have been and will be much appreciated.  If instead you are washed up on this distant beach by the whims of Google Search, just think well of someone dear to you.  Good Karma gets around.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Robot Combat Needs YOU.

For, my goodness, twelve or thirteen years I have been running a low budget middle school combat robotics program here in Wisconsin.  Click on the "Robotics" tag to see lots more.

I share the arena with Dean, an old pal from the days of building the full sized Battlebots machines.  He runs a companion version of Machines Behaving Badly over in Minnesota.

Robot Combat had a meteoric rise in popularity, then an equally fast retreat.  Probably the biggest factor was the expense....unless you were prepared to shell out many thousands of dollars your robot and your investments of time, energy and at least some thousands of dollars quickly became shredded bits of debris.  And by quickly I mean potentially in under a minute!

The success of Machines Behaving Badly has been due to the diligent volunteer efforts of Minions like Dean, and to the unyielding commitment to keeping it cheap.  It is hard to cut a program when my usual rejoinder is:

"Budget?  We don't need no steenkin' budget!"

But even a program run on a shoestring occcasionaly needs, well, a new shoestring.  So Dean has cooked up a kickstarter program to whip up a new arena.  

It is a worthy cause, and I say this realizing that if it succeeds I will have no option but to keep running this silly robotic dog and pony show until, and perhaps after, I get tossed into a nursing home by my appropriately alarmed children.

If you think that is a good idea, or if you just like the notion of demented pre-teens building combat robots out of implausible scrap componants, check out the link below.

Because really, what's the worst that could happen?  Oh....right.

Kickstart that Robot Apocalypse!

And of course, a new and easier to transport arena tempts us to expand Machines Behaving Badly to new territories.....if you are in Minnesota or Wisconsin and interested, get in touch!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Hearts and Hacksaw

You can go a long way in life just by grit and determination.  Most of my own accomplishments for instance can be attributed to stubbornness rather than to my winsome and engaging personality.  I would hazard to guess that of human beings now living I am in the upper 5% for indomitable, unshakable determination.

I say this without comment on whether it is either good or bad.  In fact it is a bit of both.  But in my family I remain a piker, an Ol' Softy, a marshmallow.  Because one of my sons is much more stubborn.

In fact an objective analysis would probably show him to be the second most stubborn organism on Planet Earth, being edged out only by a ragged patch of reindeer moss barely clinging to a frozen rock on the gale-lashed coast of Greenland.

Oh, we did have some adventures raising this one.

His first word was "broken".  He got a sledge hammer for his third birthday.  At age four he asked with apparent sincerity and with a bit of quaver in his voice, why didn't we name him "Hacksaw Chisel"? You could on rare occasion fool him, but actually forcing him to do something he did not want to do was effectively impossible..the effort involved in attempting to make him do household chores or extra credit homework simply exceeded the benefits.  Exponentially.

Of course parents are required once in a while to throw down an ultimatum.  Ever the picky eater, our lad existed somehow on pasta and meat.  Vegetables were anathema.  But one day wife and I had simply had enough.  We told him he had to sit right at the table until he ate some corn.  He made faces. He argued. But being a very, very smart monkey he recognized that this was one of those times we were willing to expend massive effort on a trivial matter.  All parenting has a few Stalingrad Moments.

A single kernel of corn was gingerly place on the tip of a spoon.  He held it as far away from himself as possible.  After a false start or two he put the horrid thing in his mouth.

The reaction was shocking.  His eyes bulged.  He gagged.  His face scrunched up.  If I were working in the ER it would have been time to do the Heimlich or perhaps prep for an emergency tracheotomy. My wife and I stood there, mouths open in astonishment.....and both broke out laughing at the bravura performance!

Fast forward through those quicksilver years when scrawny tow headed toddlers magically become tall, handsome young men.

There was a Young Lady turning up in various of the covert reports generated by the small town Stasi intelligence network.  Son grudgingly acknowledged the existence of this individual but said they were just casual friends.

One day it became known that she had been over to his squalid college guy-house and had cooked dinner for him.

"So, what did she make?"

(long pause.  longer pause.)

"Mushroom Lasagna".

I was stunned.  The world as I had come to understand it was false, a fraud, a scam that I was now seeing revealed for the first time.


(long pause.  very long pause.)

".......I was tricked".

Nope.  Not a trick.  Must be Love.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Post card from Siberia

Winter does not want to let go.  This is a picture from February 9th.  And we have not had the heavy snow month of March yet.

It is a huge pile of snow, about 16 feet tall.  It is part of a range of snow mountains surrounding the hospital parking lot. Its where the snow plows dump the darned stuff.  I call it "Mount Despair" and have started a pool trying to guess when the last icey remnants will finally melt away.  One pick is out into June.

We are in an area with a lot of winter recreation, so not everyone is unhappy about this.  Local merchants see green, not white.  Heck, I bet they have some secret cloud seeding machinery hidden away somewhere.

But the horrid amount of snow coupled with what looks to be a pending record for sub-zero days has gotten most of us feeling rather glum.

I mean....what if we got an extra cold spring and cool summer?  Is there any chance at all of some chunk of slushy ice actually making it all the way to next winter?  Go ahead and laugh, but I can hear the slight tinge of crazy in that chuckle.  This is how Ice Ages begin.

I guess some good has come of all this.  We are being told that several invasive insect species that have been damaging trees just can't take this sort of abuse and will likely retreat for a few years.

But the darned thing about climate change is that it is "always something".

There have been some semi serious discussions about cloning Woolly Mammoths using tissue found in specimens unearthed in Siberia.  It sounds challenging but perhaps possible if anyone wanted to put the money and effort into it.  Which is another way of asking "who really needs a woolly mammoth"?

Oh, I can just imagine the glee of our local Chamber of Commerce if they could announce THAT as a new tourist attraction.  And heck, if it goes well establish a breeding population and lobby for a hunting season!

Sure, we get rid of the Emerald Ash Borers and Pine Beetles and get a new invasive species...

Monday, February 10, 2014

North Korea - All Hat, No Cattle

I am not the first to note that while North Korea is near the bottom of any concievable category of human accomplishment, they absolutely kick ass with respect to Silly Hats.  My charming spouse would be quick to point out that I - as the owner of more than one Fez - am being a bit hypocritical here, but by Marx's Luxuriant Beard! check these out:

I actually go fishing from time to time with a fellow who has been inside North Korea working for an international aid agency.  He tells me that it really does seem as awful as we imagine, so the usual explanation for the Big Hat fetish may well be true....generations of malnutrition has made the Norks rather short of stature.  An extra 10 inches of head gear can be a bit of "even up".

I suspect that the officers in that last photo all carefully adjust their hats so as to be just a smidge shorter than the current Dear Leader, whose name I always botch...Kim Dong Uno or some such.  The fellow in the back has misjudged, perhaps thinking the Dongster was going to be wearing his extra tall shoe inserts today.  No doubt he is working on the first draft of his Self Denunciation Speech.

But the peculiar sartorial sense of North Korea runs deeper than hats that make them look as if they are hiding enormous Socialist Brains.  It is a whole bizarre fashion statement.  To see it best you have to take in a few Pyongyang Parades.  They exist in some parallel universe that combines elements of the Nuremberg Rallies, Godzilla movies and Dr. Suess.

They do have a certain sense of style, although the level of firearms safety on display - check out the worried look on the middle soldier in the last photo - does not speak too highly of their military training.

The internet has some scary images of North Korean children on parade...

Quite likely the four bicycles and one tricked up Barbie Jeep that made up this parade were the entire stock available in North Korea.

Yes, they'll grow into bigger hats.

If you find the whole Hermit Kingdom thing as fascinating as I do, may I suggest The North Korea Leadership Blog.  Many, many opportunities to see stumpy guys in big hats inspecting fertilizer factories and so forth....

Oh, my...rockets AND Rockettes...

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Mystery Coin - Who Are You?

First the coin:

A attractive little thing, I like the off center strike that has the portrait kind of peering out at us from off to one side.

As to its origins the odd "bottle cap" pattern gives a general clue.  Coins of this sort were poured into special molds before being struck.  By one theory the serrated edge assured those who accepted the coin that it was solid metal, although with cheap bronze it is hard to see why this was an issue.  This type was pretty much only used by the Seleucid Empire.

The Seleucids were the Rodney Dangerfields of the ancient world, never got no respect.  Their sprawling domains stretched across Turkey out into Afghanistan and even into India.  But this remnant of Alexander the Great's conquests got eaten up by the Persians on the East and the up and coming Roman Empire on the West.

I would love to have somebody identify this coin but to my eyes all the Seleucid coinage looks similar, vaguely smiling androgynous kings and deities.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mystery Coins - More on "Barbarous Radiates"

Barbarous Radiates are so common that even my box of distressed Roman detritus has several examples.  Can you pick the "official" coins from this batch?  (and could a 3rd century merchant?)

Nice detail work.  The "flan" is broken but was of good size originally.  Still trying to look like a silver coin.  All the letters might have fit.  But it does look like a clumsy "off strike".  So.....maybe official.

Again, nice detail, all the letters fit.  Almost no silver left.  These coins usually had a thin wash of it over copper.  I say, official but somebody at the mint is skimming off silver.

Oh, I don't think so....

If you want to see just how weird and crude Barbarous Radiates could get here are a few photos from a lot that was auctioned off. Said to be from the UK, most are Claudius Gothicus or his predecessors the two guys named Tetricus.  But honestly, how can you tell with some of this junk?

These are certainly cruder specimens than the ones I have hanging around, but recall that they were selected for sale on that very basis.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Mystery Coin - Was it Official?

At various times in the Roman Empire coinage fell into short supply.  This tended to either be in periods of rapid expansion, or of great upheaval.  This coin is from the latter.

Ugh.  Not much to look at.  It is of a type sometimes called a "Barbarous Radiate".  Numismatists do not fully understand these coins.  They were churned out in large numbers during the Third Century AD, especially in mints located in Gaul and Britain.  The extreme variability of style, and the general lack of artistry, makes it seem as if the equivalent of village blacksmiths went into the money making business across the Western provinces of the Empire.

This was a time of major economic and social unrest. Perhaps the machinery of government just broke down to the point where not even the most basic functions could be managed.  Commerce had declined and partly reverted to barter.  Suspicious consumers would probably "trust" older gold and silver coins but there was still a need for what we would consider small change.  Absent any authority to either encourage or to ban the practice, people just made their own "pennies" in whatever form would be accepted on a local level.

Of course the "official" coinage had long been declining in artistry and precious metal content so it is not always easy to tell just how crude a coin would have to be to qualify as "Barbarous".

This one probably does.  Crummy metal, hence the bits missing.  The blank on which the coin was struck (a "flan" if you want to be a smartypants) is undersized, the lettering spills over the edge.  The reverse shows a seated goddess holding a peculiar amalgam of cornucopia and a star with some kind of orbs around it.

If it was not "official" coinage it probably does not matter, but I suspect the coin was based on an original of Claudius Gothicus who reigned for two years only, 268-270 before he died of plague.  Like so many other aspects of "Barbarous" coinage nobody is quite sure why the coinage of Claudius and his predecessors Tetricus I and II were the most common Emperors copied unofficially.

This "might" be the original from which the above coin was derived.  Overall similar layout but whoever cut the die on my coin seems to have gone overboard with the star and cornucopia details. And is the goddess figure seated or standing in my example?


Next time a few more "Barbarous" coins......