Monday, September 29, 2014

Farewell to the Pity Car

Time to say goodbye to a car that served me well but without distinction.  Its ten years old and I got it used a few years back when one of my kids,  um, dispatched my Honda Accord.  With shifts to work and little time to car shop I bought the first thing that came to hand, a 2004 Ford Focus.

Hey, I like Ford as a company.  The don't need government bailouts for one thing.  And I got good highway mileage in the thing.  Sure it was a dowdy little tin can of and winter driving was a bit like snowboarding but I figured at least in a year or two I could give it to one of my kids.

They wouldn't take it.

Well as it turns out the Universe intervened.  I was finishing up an overnight shift in which I had actually managed a couple of hours sleep.  As I wandered, eyes asquint, over to get my breakfast tray I noticed that it was pitch black outside.  Huh.  It was supposed to be 7:30 am.  Was the call room clock wrong?

I looked out into the hospital parking lot just in time to see torrential rain and marble sized hail, both pounding down at a 45 degree angle.  My poor little car never had a chance.

It looks like a golf ball.  There must be five hundred dents in it.  On the top.  On the sides.  I suspect there might be a few on the undercarriage.

Sometimes "only a flesh wound" is pretty bad

The insurance company is calling it a total loss.

So farewell.  You always got me where I needed to go.  My risk of carjacking was zero when driving you. I feel a little sad.  It still runs fine but the cost of fixing it exceeds any possible resale value.  The insurance company will presumably sell it for it dissected parts.

It showed an unexpected toughness, bending but never breaking.  So as it drives away, dinged, pitted but undefeated I feel for it, well, pity.

It was a work horse.  And at the end of its days it will go where broken down work horses end up. Sure, the jovial claims agent I spoke with promised me that it would be going to a happy place, a farm or perhaps a beach where it would never have to drive up hills again and where it would get a nice coat of wax periodically.

But we all know better.

Friday, September 26, 2014

England 2014 - Signs of the Times

As we wandered about England in April and May a few signs caught my attention.  I like small mysteries and the little touches that show the difference between the US and the UK.

This is kind of a big deal.  You see these signs on churches and other older buildings. Evidently metal thieves really like lead roofs and gutters.  This company has some sneaky way of putting distinctive radioactive isotopes into the metal.  Scrap dealers can have the offerings of shady looking folks checked to see where the stuff came from.

This is from the same little church in Cornwall.  I had never heard of a Sunday School Stone before.

On a similar note, a stone placed into a brick building in Hexham.  This area was fairly straight laced back in the day.  Today it seems more or less normal, but if you compare it to nearby Newcastle on a Saturday Night, this would still very much be true.

As you can tell, sea side location is hard on exposed paint.  Seagulls love it though.

We ran into these ancient coin boxes in some very improbable places.  Sometimes when we were lost and in an area where nobody seemed to have been around in a long while.  Given the rust and the low returns I assume none of these have been checked lately.

This notice was pinned up in a village.  Here in the States a lot of elected officials have stopped having open meetings with their constituents.  They don't like to be told by their employers that they are a bunch of rascals and ninnies one supposes.  The term "Constituency Advice Surgeries" was new to me.  I like it.  I looked him up, Stephen Gilbert is not a physician or surgeon.  He also is one of 24 openly gay MPs.  He sounds like an OK guy for a politician.

Although I like the image I do wonder how effective "Officer Pup" is as a feces control monitor.  He seems more likely to avidly sniff the evidence than to make an arrest.

Hey, traveling can get lonesome.  This big lug in York was just standing there inviting a hug.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Alma, Wisconsin

Alma Wisconsin is a pretty little spot on the Mississippi river.  It is by the way, pronounced "Al-Ma" not "All-Ma" by the locals.  Perhaps this linguistic twist dates all the way back to the predominantly Swiss origins of the early settlers.

The Swiss of course enjoy a glass of beer now and then, so Alma's first manufacturing venture was a brewery.

John Hemrich was actually German, not Swiss.  He emigrated in 1848 settling first in Rochester New York then Keokuk Iowa.  He worked in a brewery in each place, starting one of his own in Keokuk. But Iowa kept passing pesky Prohibition Laws making it a difficult place to be a brewer.  So in 1855 Hemrich headed up river and established a brewery in Alma.

He chose a location just south of town, on Main Street between Iron and Bluff Streets.  His first brewery was made of logs.  Additions to his family and to the brewery followed on a regular basis.

In 1876 he put up a brick malting house.  In 1880 he built a stone ice house to store beer above ground.  Having the Mississippi right in front of him made ice easy to come by.  In 1884 John Hemrich leased the brewery to his son William as he prepared to move to the West Coast where other branches of the Hemrich family had established successful brewing ventures.  William continued to make improvements, replacing the log building with a framed version in 1887.  The Alma brewery was eventually sold to other parties and William went west to work in the now very successful family business.  The brewery continued in local production until it was closed by Prohibition.

So what remains of the Alma brewery?

Here we are in Alma.  South Main Street in front of me, Mississippi River behind me.  I think the street location is unchanged but it has probably been raised up a bit.  The house on the left looks to be built into the foundations of the old brewery.  The arch way into the storage cellars probably was for loading onto wagons.  I assume the brewery proper was on the higher, less prone to flooding area that makes up the back yard.  Nobody was home to ask, so I tiptoed up for a closer look....

You can see the top of an arched entrance, mostly buried under rubble.  I was surprised to find evidence of a cave system at this depth.  What did they do during the predictable spring floods?

Nice stone work.  The area has lots of limestone to work with.  That little dark niche in the stones...when you get up close you have a peek into the cave behind.  And there is light coming in from the right side.  So, around the corner we go.

If you refer back to the first photo, this is the back yard of the brown house.  It has a mix of old foundations and new landscaping stonework.  This second, smaller entrance to the cellars is nicely incorporated into their design.

I think they even added some modern brick when the original entrance had some erosion issues.

So how to interpret.  Well first, tip of the cap to the current occupants.  I have never seen brewery ruins incorporated into landscaping this nicely.  It was common in Victorian times to build fake ruins and grottoes into gardens, especially in England.  Here they were presented with a perfect set up and they have done well with it.  I also should think that their kids had some great adventures and sleep overs down there.

These caves no doubt date from the original 1855 brewery and became obsolete when the above ground ice house was added in 1880.  At that point the lower level was probably just allowed to silt in. Most likely when they built the original facility they underestimated the water problems. As to size, who knows.  Circa 1880 the brewery was making 4,000 barrels per year so I assume the caves were substantial.  Probably they go back under the bluff behind the brewery, or did at one point do so.

UPDATE: 1 December, 2016.  Apparently the two breweries in Alma each catered to a specific clientele.  Although Hemrich was in fact German his brewery was favored by the Swiss population.  The Germans were partial to the product of the "other" brewery in town which I also discuss HERE.

Monday, September 22, 2014


A picture from the road, Dubuque Iowa on a hot, humid morning.  The Statue of Liberty replica on the right is overlooking the I-20 freeway exit and this 19th century brick building with an enigmatic "ghost sign".

It has been treated roughly by time.  The addition of modern fire escapes suggests that the building, once a grocery, is now apartments.  And some later sign has been slapped over the right lower part of the SAPOLIO ad, but seemingly it was done with really cheap materials, as the newer sign has faded much faster than the old.  All I can make out is an R and an X.  Sometimes rain brings out the details better.  But back to the main ad.  I guess it reads:


I think the last word begins with an S, and that it is short, probably meant to line up with the end of the product name.  It would be common in the advertising jargon of the day to have it rhyme.  So what does the ad read and what in fact is/was SAPOLIO?  Answers such as they are, below.

SAPOLIO was a popular brand of soap in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  You may have guessed this if you know French (soap = savon) or Latin (sapo).  It was extensively advertised, and featured an array of very witty ads.  According to advertising lore the brand went into a precipitous decline when the company decided that their product was just so darned well known that buying more publicity was a waste.

Soap of course being one of those products where the differences between brands were minimal this proved to be a disaster.

As to the exact message shown above, I am not certain.  I have seen a few variations on the theme of using SAPOLIO every weekday so you could skip weekend cleaning.  And if you peer under the bottom fire escape you might just make out SU...

But were they suggesting that non-users of their product would probably have to work on the Sabbath? A bit harsh, but from the link above you can see that they did not shirk at suggesting that users of other soaps would probably never get married!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

1st Report - Robotics 2014

We are up and running with the middle school robotics class.  For those showing up late this is an after school class where I am having kids build 3 pound combat robots.

Biggest class ever I think, I gave the OK to some over booking.  We have 25 students divided up into Tuesday and Thursday sections.  Also the most girls ever, four.  Last year I think we had one and she dropped out.  This year the gals look to be pretty serious.

Above is one of the servos we hack for drive units.  A bit of a glitch this time around, although it is the same type I have been using for years they have some different components.  The kids are finding them harder to work with.  The screws holding them together seem to be made of cheaper than usual Chinese mystery metal and there is also a small plastic tab in a very inconvenient spot.  Its necessary removal involves a combination of filing, snipping and deft use of a serrated steak knife.

The latter raised an eye brow or two.  Schools these days have strict no weapons policies. Appropriate if sometimes enforced to a ludicrous degree.  I had to reassure the students that this was not a weapon. It was a tool.  We are after all right around the corner from the school's metals and wood shop where the wall has assorted hammers and saws hanging in neat rows.

Good bunch of students so far.  Impractical but interesting designs are being explored.  So far the level of prudent oversight is just fine, I have a high school kid volunteering to help after taking the class himself for three straight years.  Also the much appreciated presence of the occasional parent who takes me up on the offer to come on down and pitch in.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

(Wild) Life in a Rural ER

Seen out my window.  Well, actually I don't have any windows, we work in a bunker.  There are some video feeds of the ambulance garage and the parking lot.  To see a glimpse of the real world I have to walk down the hallway that connects to the rest of the hospital.  Looking out the window there I saw this on a recent morning....

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Baseball Mystery in Five Post Cards - Part Five

Finally a post card where the sender and recipient are both evident.

Ben Christianson has joined the army and been shipped to Europe.  The year is not given but is known to be 1918.  The address appears to be in Ben's hand.  The more elegant writing on the opposite side is presumably that of a Company Clerk in the 341st Infantry Regiment.

Bertha is almost certainly his wife.  Lots of changes for our Pal Ben.  Perhaps the wild days of hanging out with "Cy" and "I.No." are just distant memories for this now settled man.

I can add a few details thanks to the wonders of the internet, particularly the genealogy buffs of cyberspace.

Our first correspondent Carl Christianson married a woman named Bella.  They had a daughter, Drusilla, in 1919.  Drusilla lived until 2006.

Benjamin Christianson was born on 27 February 1888.  He died in Knapp Wisconsin on 1 February, 1978.  His surviving The Great War is not all that remarkable, his division debarked in France late in the war and never made it to the front lines.  They turned around and came home.  Another fellow from Viroqua, Bertina Christianson, was less lucky.  He died in action.  Christianson is a common name in the Viroqua area - there is even a Christianson Road - so this might or might not have been a relative.

Bertha Christianson was also born in 1888.  She died in 1976 but seems to have lived her last days in Omaha.

So much for the facts.  I suppose I could glean a few more by chasing down obituaries.  But the real story here is what is implied.  This exchange of cards is probably between a group of young guys who grew up together.  I would bet money that the Christiansons were brothers and that they along with the mysterious "Cy" Roberts and "I.No." - and maybe Josie- were team mates on a small town baseball squad.

In their early 20s when these cards go back and forth they are still speaking of an innocent, earlier day when playing ball, swimming down at the local creek, and casting eyes upon school marms were their main interests.  It seems quaint.  In fact it seems so corny that Norman Rockwell would roll his eyes at it.  But we are looking back on it from a jaded and battle scarred perspective. Between 1900 and The Guns of August in 1914 it was indeed a fine time for optimism and progress.

I doubt that the 30 year old Ben Christianson was shy at this point in life.  I imagine that he thought of those idyllic times down at the swimming hole as his troopship neared the bloody shores of Europe in the summer of 1918.  It sounds as if he settled down to rural life upon his return. So, common wisdom notwithstanding, I guess you can keep 'em down on the farm, now that they've seen Paree....

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Baseball Mystery in Five Post Cards - Part Four

The fourth in a series of post cards that seem to be telling a story.  Back track for the earlier post(s).

A rather nice post card this time.  Or at least it used to be.  It has blue felt forming the pennant and red ink on the highlights.  Notice the particulars on the reverse, Ben Christianson has now moved to Knapp, Wisconsin.  This is about 70 miles northwest of Viroqua.  Note also that the date on this card is July of 1915.  I assume this is old stock, as the events of August 1914 made all things German seem far less quaint and jolly.

The message is short and sweet.  Someone named Josie likes LaCrosse and says all is well.  It is hard to say much given this small amount of information.  I do note that "Josie" misspells Ben's last name...en instead of on.  Perhaps this was a less familiar acquaintance.

1915.  Things were happening in the world.  Things that would soon involve Ben Christianson.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Baseball Mystery in Five Post Cards - Part Three

The third in a series of post cards that seem to be telling a story.  Back track for the earlier post(s).

Another card in the genre of baseball and romance.  This features the usual comedic pairing of an elegant, serene Gibson Girl alongside a coarse featured bumpkin of a ball player.

Like our last entry this is from "Cy" to Benjamin Christianson of Viroqua.  This is dated a couple of weeks after the prior card, June 12th of 1911.  The text on this is again both dense and confusing.  In fact it was reading this one that made us think we were on to something really unusual, perhaps the correspondence of a minor league manager.  OK, here goes:

"Hello Pal, how is everything over on your side of the world?  On my first managerial trip my youngsters lost to Ontario 8 to 7 in 14 innings.  Same game away from home on a rainy day. Come over next Sun + watch us skin them here.  Good Luck.   Cy Young Roberts

After puzzling quite a bit about how a baseball team from Wisconsin could be playing a team from Ontario, and perhaps from Montana in our first entry, I had a flash of inspiration.  Sure enough, there is a small community called Ontario Wisconsin not far from where this card was posted, LaFarge Wisconsin.

So we now have tumbled quite a ways down the baseball hierarchy, from a wide traveling minor league or barnstorming team all the way down to town ball.  "Cy" in reflecting on his recent promotion to manager seems a bit surprised.  Perhaps he was an unexpected choice as player-manager?

I suppose Cy has the last name of Roberts.  He is referring to Ben Christianson as "Pal" so my notion that they were brothers seems unlikely.  As they share an interest in baseball and seem to both be young fellows I am thinking former team mates.  Oh, and there actually was a major league player who went by the moniker of Cy Roberts.  In the summer of 1911 he was still in diapers.

We shall, alas,  hear no more from Cy, but Ben Christianson's role in the story continues tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Baseball Mystery in Five Post Cards - Part Two.

The second in a series of post cards that seem to be telling a story.  Back track for the earlier post(s).

An attractive post card, but a bit confusing.  The suggestion is that the successful athlete is finding even greater success with the ladies.  But the ladies appear first and the ball game second.  Also, if this is supposed to depict a stolen base, well the runner was safe by a mile.  He did not even have to slide! There is clearly some dunderheaded defense going on here.  And talk about confusing, it looks as if the player in blue has just stolen a base.  Fine.  But the other runner charging in is in the white uniform of the defensive team!  Very odd, and not suggestive of any particular athletic glory.  If you stare at this illustration long enough it becomes even more surreal.  From the positioning of the players it looks as if the fellow in blue has either just stolen first base or almost as likely, has stolen third by running in from somewhere out in left field.  Or did he run backwards?  Now that would have been impressive.

This one is addressed to a Ben Christianson.  The last name is identical to our first entry as is the small southwest Wisconsin town of Viroqua.  It is reasonable to assume Ben and Carl were related, perhaps brothers.  The "Ping Bodie" addition is another joke, that was the name/nickname of a major league slugger of the day.  The text is dense and a bit hard to read.  I make out:

"Well Shieth, have you located my base ball pad yet?  If not crawl under your porch or into the chimney + get it.  How's your salary arm?  Am going to call on you to twirl against the Cubs soon.  Am enjoying my good health with the paint brush these days.  How are you making it?  Any school maam there yet?  Go swimming for me.
Cy   Cy   Cy   Cy

Oy, where to start.  Shieth is a word I had never encountered.  It is an archaic word for "shy".  I infer a degree of kidding throughout the message, Cy seems to be sending Ben on some kind of wild goose chase.  Ben might be a pitcher, hence the reference to salary arm and pitching against the Cubs.  Or it might just be more kidding around.  Perhaps the salty nature of our first card is still on my mind, but the references to paint brushes and school maam sound a bit off color.

I am no expert in such matters but despite the similar tone I do not think that our "Cy" from this card and our enigmatic "I.No." from the previous one are the same person.  The hand writing looks different.

Cy of course is a reference to the famous Cy Young.  More kidding around.  This writer sounds like a brother but the reference to "your porch" instead of  our or the porch makes it more likely they are friends and probably former team mates.

More from "Cy" tomorrow.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Baseball Mystery in Five Post Cards. Part One.

A friend found a small collection of post cards at a garage sale.  Recognizing them as my sort of story she loaned them to me.  Together they tell a tale, but one that teases with information just out of reach.....

Our first card is a racy little number.  And a little creepy.  Notice how the young lady has her eyes on the camera?  And the "umpire" does not seem to be making the traditional "safe" sign of arms held straight out.  He has wrists bent as if he is recoiling in surprise.  He also has more of a nautical cap on, rather than the usual umpire's gear.  Is he some sort of voyeur?   There is of course a base in the picture, and the fellow stealing a kiss is wearing spikes.  As to the location of his left hand, well, just how old is the phrase "second base"?

This card is addressed to a Carl Christianson in Viroqua Wisconsin.  Presumably the writer and recipient knew each other well enough for a bit of banter,  Also so that he writer could sign himself simply as "I.No."

The card was sent from Melville Montana on an illegible date in 1910.  Melville was still something of a wild frontier town at that time.  It was and is famous for trout fishing.  Parts of the town have survived unchanged from this era and featured in the fishing/brotherhood film A River Runs Through It.  Was the enigmatic I.No. out there fishing?  Was he a brother to Carl?

The story continues tomorrow, and daily the rest of the week.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Militant Flower

Walking home from the Farmer's Market the other day.  I got to carry the produce, Wife was toting some gladiolas.  I got to wondering....any connection between this:

And this:

Actually, yes.  Gladiolas is the diminutive form of gladius, the Latin word for sword.  The resemblance is a bit stronger with the long pointy leaves than with the actual blooms.  Never a good day unless you learn something.

Friday, September 12, 2014

FrankenBunny and Pals

I have been seeing more examples of "Folk Art" around lately.  I think this mural painted by local high school students qualifies.

Lots of whimsical critters here, not always done with classic perspective ratios...

A worried looking trout.

A gigantic squirrel.  He can insolently turn his back on the glowering hawk right behind him.

A large mouth bass with "Disney Eyes".  It appears to be leaping out of a localized area of boiling water.  An albino cardinal watches indifferently.

The glowing red loon eye in lower right is scary enough.  Note also the "skunk eyes".

The average weight of an adult North American beaver is 44 pounds (20 kilos).  This oddly assembled "Frankenbunny" must be at least 50 pounds.  Time for an entry in one of my long neglected categories The Rodent Peril.
Addendum.  While clearing out additional photos of this mural I noticed something off in one corner. It seems I was mistaken in my theory of this being a school project.  An artist has signed it, way off on the right hand side next to the howling albino wolf.

Having been a bit, er, critical of the work maybe I will just skip the name, but a quick internet search shows that the individual in question is a real estate agent who dabbles in "commission work" of this sort.  Maybe the perspective issues can be explained by the fact  that said artist lives on a farm with "a small herd of minature horses, one pygmy goat, two cats.."  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - An Iowa Ghost Town

Ignatz Bilger figured he knew the next big thing.  He had after all seen a lot of the world for a man his age.  Born in Baden Germany in 1828 he emigrated to Rochester New York twenty years later.  He barely had time to unpack before heading overland to the California Gold Rush in 1849.  After a few years of presumably unprofitable effort he came back east in 1852. Arriving by ship in New Orleans he took a river boat upstream to St. Louis where he spent a couple of years learning the brewing trade.

Records are a little sketchy but he became a naturalized citizen and moved around a bit. Milwaukee, Dubuque, Ft. Atkinson Iowa, all pursuing the brewing trade.  Then in 1859 he relocated to a place called Auburn on the Little Turkey river.

In the decade before the Civil War nobody really knew which communities would thrive and which would not.  They all started with great hopes, certain that they would be the next Chicago.  But often as not the railroad took a different route or the ore ran out or it was just a lousy place to put a town in the first place.

Auburn got off to a good start.  The first mill went up in 1849, not long after the area had been ceded by the Winnebago Indian tribe.  In short order it accumulated the essential components of a bustling frontier town.  A cabinet shop, a hotel, a drug store, even a plow factory, a pottery and a machine shop.

Bilger's Brewery started off slowly, tax records show him only making 10 1/4 barrels of beer in 1862. One wonders if it was at this point only an oversized home brewery.  But by the late 1860s he was up to 1,500 barrels a year, and had expanded his facility into an impressive brick and stone structure.

Bilger died young, only 50 years old when he passed in 1878.  His brewery was carried on for a while by his widow but was squeezed out of business by the state wide Prohibition laws of the 1880s.

Auburn never amounted to much.  Today it is a church and a couple of houses.  It even lost its name, and now a town in the western part of the state goes by that moniker.  There is a grave yard.  If you can find the spot I understand the pottery site has a marvelous hillside of shards. And of course there is the ghost of the Ignatz Bilger brewery...

The brew master's house.  Probably a little later than the heyday of the brewery but still very old. Now also in ruins but it seems to have been occupied not so very many years ago.

Behind the house is junk.  An old camper, two wrecked snowmobiles.  This is a derelict boat. Beyond you can see walls and a cellar.  It is full of old tin cans and trash.

One section of the brewery wall still stands tall and proud.

The entrance to the cave.  Not very big now, it seems to have been silted in over time and I suspect partially collapsed.

Here the cave snugs up against the ruins of the brewery walls.

Old stones.  Laid most likely during the Civil War.  Perhaps only 20 years or so of use.  Then 130 more of slow decay.  Ignatz Bilger built well.  He just was wrong about where the next Chicago was going to be.

If you were interested in visiting the site, it is rather out of the way.  Take highway 150 north out of West Union.  About four miles or so from town there is a road designated B44.  Turn left. In another few miles you come to a bridge over the Little Turkey River.  On the left you will see a small landing for canoeists.  Park there.  The brewery site is just over the dirt road (marked as Nest Road).  If the foliage is not too dense you should be able to see the red brewmaster's house from the landing.

When I visited in August there was not a soul around.  I walked down Nest Road a hundred paces before seeing what proved to be part of the site.  After crashing around in chest high weeds and oppressive heat I walked back out, actually coming out right near the B44-Nest Road junction.  As I left I did see a No Trespassing sign mostly covered with weeds.
Update, November 2014.  I love genealogists.  They are the BEST researchers.  I recently ran across THIS site with a lot of additional information.  If you lack the time to peruse it let me give a few summary notes.

-Dates for the Bilger brewery were "late 1850s" to 1884.  After Ignatz died a man named Ostenberger ran it for Mrs. Bilger.
-The red brick building that I described as the brewmaster's house is also described as a beer hall.  It appears to have served both functions.
-The Bilger brewery employed 5 or 6 workers.
-Bilger used the byproducts of brewing, spent grains, to feed livestock.  He would buy "work oxen" that he would fatten up for later sale.  Some of his tax records also speak of "hogs". I assumed this referred to "hogsheads" of beer, but the meaning could just as easily be literal.  This is still common practice for brewers by the way.
-In 1929 much of the brewery was knocked down so that the stone could be reused for building.

Most interesting to me was a description of the beer cellar.  It is said to have been 12 feet wide, 30 feet long and 8 feet high.  This would make it at present about half way silted in.  It was kept cool in part by cold spring water that came from a source further up the hill.  This was piped into the brewery and house, where it no doubt came in handy for brewing and domestic uses.  It also ran through the beer cellar.  This would be a fairly efficient way to keep a steady temperature.

This got me to wondering about the drainage troughs that are a common feature in brewery caves, and to thinking on caves I know of with significant water flow through them.  But best of all, the description of how cellars like this were built suggests a whole new avenue of discussion.  Look in the future for a post called Forgotten Brewery Caves...and Vaults and Cellars...

Monday, September 8, 2014

Robot Combat - 2014

It is fall.  The kids are back in school.  Summer is slipping off to southerly climes in the near future.

So it is time for my annual middle school combat robotics class.

I think this is my 14th year of teaching it.  And it was an offshoot of previous adventures building larger, more imposing combat robots for the "RobotWars" type competitions that sprang up all over in the late 1990s.  Pretty much they are all gone now, but "Machines Behaving Badly" not only endures, it thrives.  Sign up fills at the first opportunity.

In part the concept has stood the test of time from its sheer simplicity.  We have them build 3 pound robots out of very simple, cheap components.  Here is my staging area as I pack up for class.

A big box of servos.  The class fee covers snacks, two servos per student.  If you want four wheel drive we improvise.

A large tub of robot guts.  This is a mixture of destroyed robots from past competitions plus the occasional batch of parts from a guy I know....he has a Barbie Jeep graveyard and I pick up motor/gearbox sets from him...

This one is very Barbie!  Also a nice light unit, somebody will build a good 3 pounder based on it.

This is the battered wreck of my favorite entrant from last year.  It had a ping pong ball machine gun! Really, the two central motors spun foam rubber wheels that fired ping pongs like a pitching machine.  Several parts including the ball magazine are, well, somewhere else now.

Maybe the single biggest thing that did in Robot Combat generally was the need for ever more durable arenas.  The robot arms race was appalling.  What started out as simple machines based on scavenged wheelchair motors soon looked more like the post apocalyptic world of Terminator.  So we have more or less frozen the technology at sane levels.  Our arena lasted a long time.

But it is being replaced after about 13 years of yeoman duty.  Thanks to the generosity of a Kickstarter campaign the new arena is taking shape in a secret facility.  The walls of course will be clear polycarbonate, what you see here still has the protective backing on it.

First class tomorrow.  Updates from time to time.  Maybe I will get a class filled with cheerful students, expecting to build happy, chirpy robots that will work together to solve problems in a cooperative fashion.  But perhaps, if I am lucky, it will instead be an edgy intense bunch, ready to divert their adolescent angst into what I refer to as "vigorously applied physics".

Updates periodically in the months ahead.  Tournament in early November.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Return to the Field of Dreams

I don't know how to explain the Field of Dreams.  If you know it, no explanation is necessary.  If you don't, any explanation is difficult. But I will do my best.

Field of Dreams is a movie made in 1989.  It starred Kevin Costner and was based on the book Shoeless Joe written by W.P. Kinsella. The premise of the movie is ridiculous.  Costner is an Iowa corn farmer who starts hearing voices.  He proceeds to plow under the best part of his crop land to build a baseball field, believing that if he does Shoeless Joe Jackson, an unjustly banned baseball player will come back from the dead and be allowed a chance to play again.

And that is just what happens.  Shoeless Joe and the other banned members of the 1919 "Black Sox" materialize mystically and walk out of the corn field.  They are alive again, even young again. Some people can see them.  Others cannot.  It is a matter of faith.

The whole improbable enterprise is threatened when shady corporate interests want to plow it under again, putting the land to more profitable use.  But in the end all is well.  The ghostly ball players vanish back into the corn and Costner, well, I will leave the ending to the realm of your imagination if you have not seen the movie, and to your fond remembrance if you have.

But the Field of Dreams is also a physical place.  In Iowa.  When the film was completed the baseball field remained.  There were a few disputes between the two landowners who shared the site, one year left and center field were returned to corn, and even after that there were hard feelings and competing souvenir stands on opposite sides of the site.

But the magic was there. You felt it.  There was no admission fee, no gates. You just drove up, got out and walked around. Played catch if you felt like it.  Or maybe just sat on the tiny bleachers to see if maybe, just maybe you could see the ghostly figures of Shoeless Joe and his team mates.

19 years ago I went there with my young family.  It was a demanding stage in my career and I needed a break.  I have fond memories, but few photos, of my wife wearing a big straw hat, pushing our youngest in a stroller.  And of my oldest running the bases after getting a hit off of "The Ghost Team" locals who had minor roles in the film and still stage the occasional appearance, strolling out of the tall corn in their vintage uniforms.

In August of 2014 I visited again.  Just my wife and I this time, the kids are all grown up.

I sat in the bleachers, the iconic farm house behind me.

I studied the field.  I thought I could almost, but not quite see the ghosts.  Even in the book/movie they were not on the field at all times.

I stood on the edge of the cornfield.  What really is out there? In the book Shoeless Joe there is speculation.

"I try not to wonder what is beyond that gate, to speculate on what kind of limbo my ballplayers lay in....Are there other ballfields like mine, other players, other magic farms?  Are there layers upon layers of dimension, like coats of varnish on fine furniture?  Or do my players go back to a phantom hotel, change clothes, and head out to shadowy restaurants, bars and night clubs?"

I have been out there, so I know the answer.  I won't tell you what I saw but I can say that I heard things.  Sounds that were not just the rustling of ten foot tall corn in a hot Iowa breeze.

You can go there yourself.  You should do so.  The future of The Field is under some threat but you have to believe it will all turn out fine.  It is once again a matter of faith.

Those interested in the current controversy - it involves shady corporate interests angling for profits - can visit Save the Field of Dreams on Facebook.

The Field is outside of Dyersville Iowa.  It is something you have to experience on your own.  If you do encounter a ethereal figure in an old style woolen baseball uniform, choose your words well. Don't ask too many questions.  Again from Shoeless Joe:

"I've never seen any of you anywhere except on the field.  What do you become when you walk through that door in center field?"

The silence that follows is long and ominous.  I feel like I have just stomped across an innocent children's game, or broken a doll.

    "We sleep," says Chick Gandil finally.
    "And wait, " says Happy Felsch.
    "And dream," says Joe Jackson.  "Oh, how we dream...."