Friday, January 30, 2015

Desk Racers Part Five

An interesting day of work with some fun near the end.

Our work list included figuring out why the control system of one of our racers was reading no radio signal.  I had them make a list of possible things that could go wrong and trouble shoot them.  In turn we ruled out low battery in transmitter or receiver, bad PWM connections and a few other maladies. In the end one of the sharp eyed students noticed that we had a frequency 67 crystal in instead of the required 61.  This is something my 58 year old eyes had missed, especially as I always write my 7s in the European style to avoid just such embarrassing problems!

Most of the work today was actually on Racer C, which I predict will fight us to the end.  A couple of "work in progress shots".

The motor mounting is tricksy, we may have to adjust the tension on the U-bolts a bit.  Best case scenario has it test driving next week.

Speaking of test driving, we did a little.  Here is Racer B, which surprised us by being quite frisky indeed at 24 volts.

Here are A and B ready for a competitive test drive:

B on the left looks wimpy in comparison but as I predicted it is actually the faster machine, albeit at a price of being much harder to control.  Also less study, I note some sag in the front wheels that has me concerned and might call for some shoring up before race day.  And of course I did film a few seconds of the machines firing up and running.  Very few, It is hard to keep the camera steady when you are in danger of having your foot run over by a machine being operated by someone several years too young to have taken drivers ed!

Just imagine what it will be like with three machines instead of two!

Oh, and here is the zippy little Racer B on its own:

Race day ought to be fun.  I will have to mount a camera on one or more of the machines.....

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Scamps and Rascals

I am continuing my mid winter exploration of medieval insults persisting to the modern age.  I just feel like it.

But I thought it would be nice to switch over to some affectionate ones.  The sort of thing you would call your spirited child.  Scamp, scalawag, rascal, ragamuffin, that sort of thing.  All nice little words, no?


Scamp.  First used in the 1780s, it was a term that meant "highway robber".  It probably derived from a similar word that meant "to roam" that descended from scamper.  Scamper meant to run away quickly, specifically to run away from a battle field!  You can trace the word backwards through centuries of cowardly soldiers.  The Flemish shampeeren from the 1600s. And on back through the Old French escamper and all the way to Latin ex campo.  The word decamp is closely related.  The delightful word vamoose followed a similar path from the Latin vadare, to go or to walk hastily. Who knew that military deserters had such a rich linguistic heritage?

Scalawag. The earlier use of this word was to describe a disreputable fellow of little importance.  It combines Wag, for a habitual joker, with Skallag a Scottish term for farm servant.  But Skallag itself was derived from Scalloway, one of the Shetland islands, and was a term used for the runty ponies that the Shetlands are still known for.

Rascal. From 12th century French, where rascaille meant rabble or mob. The implication of it being a sudden outburst as well as the dregs and scrapings of society has raised the possibility of a connection with the Latin rasicare, to scrape. This word also gives rise to rash and razor.

Ragamuffin.  Well now, surely you can call your misbehaving little moppit a ragamuffin without giving offense.....can't you? its original 14th century form it meant "demon".  The devil was often depicted as having a shaggy or "ragged" appearance.  The sense of the word as a term for a "dirty, disreputable boy" came along in the 1580s.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Abe Vigoda Awards

Premature obituaries are hardly a new phenomena.  As soon as it became fashionable to have a printed announcement of someone's demise human error kicked in and mistakes were made.

In the modern era it has actually become more common.  Our electronic age lends itself to both hoaxes and to instantaneous widespread screw ups.  The most famous example of this occurred on 16 April 2003 when was hacked and their working files for obituaries of famous people were released.  Some of them were rather laughable.  Both Dick Cheney and Bob Hope were described as "the Queen Consort" and "the UK's favorite grandmother" as bits and bobs of The Queen Mother's obituary got mixed in.  Fidel Castro's political life was also cast in a somewhat different light when portions of Ronald Reagan's obituary were grafted on.  "Lifeguard, athlete, movie star" are a bit peculiar but it must be said that Fidel was once a promising enough baseball player to attract some interest from professional scouts.

In some cases a premature obit could be regarded as fabulous tribute.  It meant that you had not only attained a level of recognition in this life but that you were also around to read about it.  Having run across a few such examples over the years I thought it would be fun to assemble a group of honorees for The Abe Vigoda Award, given for being the best sport when incorrectly declared dead.


1. Mark Twain.  Although Twain's comments on his death are certainly the most famous in this genre it should be noted that they did not come in response to an official obituary.  In 1897 a reporter was sent to inquire on his status at a time when Twain was incorrectly thought to be in poor health.  In later remarks Twain said that "The report of my death was an exaggeration".  True, but the exaggerating was mostly in this instance being done by Twain himself!  The quote is usually botched with the "..rumors of my death.." format.

2. Rock musicians (group award).
Alice Cooper - "I'm alive and drunk as usual".
Axl Rose - "If I'm dead do I still have to pay taxes?"


1. Friedrich Gulda I confess, I had never heard of this fellow until doing a bit of research on premature obituaries.  He was an Austrian pianist and by all accounts a delightfully eccentric kook. His attire at one recital was said to resemble that of "a Serbian pimp".  In 1999 he faxed an announcement of his death to promote a concert which he then dubbed a "Resurrection Recital" complete with - rather atypically for European classical performances - go go dancers.  As a conspiratorial participant in his supposed demise he does not make the A list but it should be noted that he always said he wanted to die on Mozart's birthday and in 2000 he did just that.

2. The Association of Dead People I am not in this instance pointing a finger at any specific individual responsible for dishonorable reports of premature demise.  No, I am throwing a bouquet of shame at the entire legal system of the Uttar Pradesh region of India.  Evidently it very common practice there to have people declared dead so that others can claim legal deed to their property. Corruption and bureaucratic inertia make it so difficult for average folk to fight this that an Association was formed to combat the predatory scam.


Cats and Number 10 Downing Street seem to be some sort of a thing.

There actually is a position titled Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office given either officially or informally to the cat in residence at the home of the Prime Minister.  This has been on some level true since the time of Henry VII and in recent times there has actually been a small allowance from the Treasury dedicated to the upkeep of said Mouser.  In 1929 this was a reasonable one shilling a day. In the 21st century it has risen to 100 pounds per annum, which begs the question of how many mice the Chief Mouser is actually catching and eating these days.

Humphrey held the post during the Margaret Thatcher era and in 1995 the Government issued as statement that he was missing and presumed dead.  Fortunately he was found idling at the nearby Royal Army Medical College and a statement "from" Humphrey indicated that while he had had a grand time he was happy to be back and was looking forward to the upcoming Parliamentary session.

In 1997 there were reports that Cherie, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, hated the cat so much that she had arranged for it to be killed.  Alan Clark MP demanded on the floor of Parliament that the Government prove that Humphrey was in fact alive and well.  Number 10 complied with photos of The Chief Mouser posing with the day's newspaper.  (The Blairs presumably have never had to arrange a substitute goldfish on short notice....).

Mrs. Blair and Humphrey. From the cat's expression I doubt she was saying "Welcome back".
In November of 2009 Canadian Transportation Minister John Baird caused a brief commotion when he texted "Thatcher has died".  True enough, but he was referring to his cat of the same name.  The Iron Lady soldiered on until 2013.


Third Place

Rudyard Kipling.  When a magazine reported him dead he wrote to them saying: "I have just read that I am dead.  Don't forget to delete me from your list of subscribers."

Second Place

Jon Heder. Best known...actually almost exclusively known for his role as the quirky, dim witted odd ball Napoleon Dynamite Heder responded to reports of his death by saying: "Yeah, and apparently its not true."

First Place and After Lifetime Award Winner

Of course, Abe Vigoda Himself.

Mr Vigoda was described as "the late" in a 1982 issue of People magazine.  The news at the time was widely believed and for reasons that make sense if you think about them for a moment.  Although actually a very athletic fellow he always looked old and tired. His most memorable role was as Tessio in The Godfather, where he was last seen being led away to certain off screen demise.  And he had a role in Joe versus the Volcano, a lamentable bomb that exterminated the careers of all concerned other than Tom Hanks.

In addition to being "dead" longer than anyone else on the list Mr. Vigoda has been a better sport about it than most folks.  After the People magazine screw up he posed on the cover of Variety magazine in a coffin.  He appeared on David Letterman and breathed on a mirror to prove that he only looked dead.  And he seems to have been at least tolerant of the implausible Abe Vigoda is Dead meme that has now lasted 33 years and counting.

If you want to keep score you can go a webpage that is constantly updating a single fact: Abe Vigoda's continued dead or alive status.

Abe will, presumably, turn 94 on 24 February, 2015.  You can wish him a Happy Birthday.  But perhaps it would be wise to check first.

fetch the mirror

Friday, January 23, 2015

Robotic Desk Racers - Part 4.2

Racer C actually might teach the kids a few useful things.  It is a more complicated design, and one that has more potential failure points.  "That could have gone better" is probably the most instructive phrase in robotics.

Unlike the other two which use gear boxes from Barbie Jeeps, this one will (hopefully) be driven by four cordless drills.  It is an old trick from the combat robot days, back then these were mostly used for machines in the 30 to 60 pound weight class, and while the type of drill employed varied, most were 18 volt models.

A while back I picked up a lot of four vintage Black and Decker cordless drills.  Probably circa mid 90s, I was eventually able to ID them as 9.6 volt "Scrugun" cordless screwdrivers.  This seems auspicious, as screwdrivers are set for higher torque and lower RPMs than drills.  The mildewed spec sheet that came with these suggests they have a rating for 1500 RPM, and that promisingly, the clutch only engages when the screwdriver is pressed forward onto the screw.  Earlier "hacks" of screwdrivers I had undertaken were fussy this way, you had to disable the clutch otherwise the gears would disengage when the unit was put under sudden load.

Several challenges were present with this design, and they exceeded the skills and tools available for our class.  So it was down to my underground lair/shop to fab a few parts.  I am in matters mechanical capable enough to highlight my ignorance, but only because the latter is such a large object.

For axles it was necessary to have something that could be fitted into the drill "chuck" and tightened down securely, and also to have a means of attaching the wheel in a solid fashion. Many years ago, in the twilight of robotic combat, there was a lot of "stuff" for sale.  I purchased in disassembled form a robot named "Amish Rebellion".  I have been using the parts for various things ever since.

Among many other components there were some swell axles.  Some with pointed "Ben Hur" style tips, others without.  I needed to modify them for our purposes.  In order it was time to: Turn them down on the lathe, grind the fit point into a triangular shape that would mate well with the drill chuck, then cut them off to equal length.

The last step took a long time.  I guess these were some kind of hardened steel alloy.

The final set up also includes a bronze bushing to support the far end of the axle.  And a mounting system will be "McGivered" from a U-bolt and some metal plumber's tape.

Drill motors, wheels, axles and chuck key ready to go.

Base is cut.  The wooden blocks will have bronze bushings supporting the far end of the axles.  This machine is about 2 feet wide.  B is similar.  A with the big wheels is 3 feet wide.  The hallways we will race in are 11 feet wide.   That leaves 48 inches of clearance divided between the racers and the walls.  That will be interesting at the turns.

Steady progress, but as always we will be down to the deadline on completion.

Robotic Desk Racers - Part 4.1

Today we left Racer A off to one side as work progressed on B and C.

It turns out that I was mistaken on the gearboxes we had installed on B. They were not 6 volt versions, they were 12 volt.  Specifically they were gearboxes from a "Raptor 700 Yamaha" kiddy toy. Of course this means the wheels we have on are not big enough.  So we have to overvolt the motors to 24 volts to compensate.  Off with the 12 volt control board and on with the 24 volt version with the Victor 883 controllers.

After a brief lecture on Watt's Law and how it defines the Promise and Perils of over-volting.....

24 volt control board installed.

Dummy proof, or at least, dummy resistant main power switch and power buss bars.

It has been a great help to be able to use the drills and drivers from the school shop.  Here we have Racer B just a few connections away from a test drive.

And that is where we left it.  I think we would have gotten her up and going but one of my better students had to miss the first half hour of build session.  He is some kind of athlete it seems and had to go for pre-participation concussion screening. If he started talking about the classes I teach (he is also in my Dungeons and Dragons group) they probably held him over for a few more in depth queries.

Oh well, next session we should have A and B doing speed trials.....

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Elementary, Mr. Bill

My stuffed squirrel mascot, Mr. Bill, always gets a nice Christmas present.  He brings nothing but happiness into the world so the chances of making Santa's Naughty List are minimal.  I on the other hand would rather like some dark organic material, not coal on Christmas morning but some swell anaerobically preserved Roman stuff when I go off digging in May.

This year Bill got this outfit:

It is intended to be Pilgrim garb, note the archaic collar and the useless buckle on the front of the hat. But actually I think the hat looks more like a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker special.  I post a photo of same in tribute to the fourth season of Sherlock starting filming in the UK this month.

As you can tell, hats are something of a problem for Bill.  In addition to a fairly large cranium - one has to store all those birdfeeder cheat codes someplace after all - Bill has fragile ears.  This outfit is actually a slightly modified wine bottle cover.

So I got to thinking.  And not having stopped myself in time I went on the internet to look up "Squirrel Costumes".  The visual results tend to fall into three categories.  Things you are Glad you Saw.  Things you wish you could UnSee.  And things you hope aliens monitoring our civilization from afar Never See. From category the first I offer up a few other wine bottle get ups that I think have some potential...

 Basic.  The short sleeves would fit his arms better than the Pilgrim outfit.
 Again with the arm issue, but Bill would look swell in Fonzi mode.
 It would be a shame to hide his luxuriant, ebony pelt under the monk's robe, but still, cool.
Honestly he would probably look better in the bridal gown....

Monday, January 19, 2015

Japes, Jabs and Jibes

I am continuing my mid winter series on medieval insults surviving into the modern era.  Why?  Not sure really. Perhaps just because being cooped up indoor by the cold I have fewer distractions and actually get around to looking into the odd questions that occur to me.

For instance, after launching my inquiries with the marvelous word Jackanapes I got to wondering if it had some relationship with the word "Japes". And for that matter were Japes, Jibes and Jive all cousins of some etymological sort?

A Jape is a joke, jest, trick or deceit.  It can be used as either a noun or a verb, the latter being the act of joking, etc.  So of course it is exactly the sort of thing that a Jackanapes would do.  But Jape is not derived from Jackanapes.  Jape originates from Old French, either from  "japer" which means to howl or scream, or from "gaber" which meant to mock or deride.

I blush slightly to report that from its late 14th century origins the word Jape took the etymological low road for a the mid 15th century it had bawdy implications including the meaning "to have sex with".  The indispensable Online Etymology Dictionary whispers that it then "disappeared from polite usage" before being revived in its current sense of a witty insult.

Jibe can have a similar meaning, some sort of taunt, and is likely derived from the same root sources. But oddly it has an alternate meaning as well.  To "jibe" with something is to be in tune with it, or in agreement with it.  The OED suggests a variant of the word "chime" for its sense of being in harmony.  Perhaps the nautical use of a "jib sail" to help steer a ship contributed as well.

Jive was probably just a mistaken form of Jibe, but it has taken on an independent life.  In its journey through the linguistic world of early 20th century Black American culture it became a description for a style of lively jazz music, perhaps of a sort meant to trick the ear?  Since then it has returned to its base meaning of some sort of falsehood, and has dropped out of use entirely other than in retro forms of entertainment.  I recall the word still being in occasional used in the late 1970s, but keep in mind that I grew up about as far away, culturally, as one could from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Jab is the Scottish variant of a Middle English word "jobben" which meant to jab, thrust or peck. It is occasionally used to indicate an insult but something a bit more harmful than a jape or a jibe.  But I also note that term has oddly become specific for the process of giving immunizations.  My UK friends speak of "having their jabs".  Here in the States we would say we had "had our shots".

Culturally this means something but for the life of me I don't know what.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Robotic Desk Racers - Part Three

A novel experiment this session.  I made up a work list.  Specific tasks to accomplish with my estimate of how many kids could effectively work on each one.  I let them sign up for what they wanted to do.  Sixth graders first, then seventh, then eight.  Within a class it was alphabetical order of sign up.  Next week the grades will be reversed and the kids will sign up in anti-alphabetical order.  It seemed to work out pretty well.

As always, we could have put an extra half hour to good use.

Racer A needed some reinforcement.  Here the kids are "under the hood".

I have to say, they have done a good job on this one.  The wiring issues have been resolved and it is now fully operational.  The test drive they took over the anticipated "Grand Prix" course through the hallways came in at just under 1 minute 30 seconds.  That is about what I was aiming for so I do not think we will have to bump the power up to 24 volts.

Most of the effort today was on Racer B, and we were fairly close to having it operational too.  The motor/gearbox/wheel/mount units ready to attach:

Liberal quantities of wood glue and drywall screws have them securely on, and the desk attached to the platform.

We need to string wire from the drive units to the speed controllers, add a battery mount and a main power switch.  This is at most one hour of work assuming nothing gets broken.  Here we have units A and B next to each other...

Unit A on the right certainly looks bigger and meaner, but I think they will be competitive for speed. B has, I think, gearboxes designed for 6 volts so running them at 12 will be a 100% over volt and should compensate for the roughly 50% smaller wheel diameter.  B is more fragile, so it will be important to not let lunk heads try and hop on for a ride during the race!

Unit C will be harder, but we have five sessions left, so I think it will be possible if I fab a couple of custom adapters for the wheels.  B and C do not have any spare gearboxes, so they are on the NSP engineering program.  No Spare Parts means any serious mishap is fatal.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

To the Bat Cave! Or not.

As I have oddly become the Internet's go to resource on brewery caves in the last couple of years it is my responsibility to pass along various messages.

Don't go into dangerous places.

Don't get arrested for trespassing.

And now I have to add another caveat, one which will cause me to more frequently invoke the "no location" rule:

Stay away from the bats.

Most people do this instinctively.  While recognizing the important work they do eating the mosquitoes that would otherwise be eating us, most people find bats creepy.  And even if you can appreciate our little fliegermaus pals the fact is that they are the major vectors for rabies in our part of the world.  So when you encounter one flying around your house it is all to easy to reach for the old tennis racket. (for the record I have coveralls, welding gloves, a biohazard hood and a butterfly net as my non lethal, no rabies shots needed kit).

But really the reason for staying away from where bats "hang out" is not for your protection but for theirs.

Since it was first discovered in 2006 a very nasty fungal infection called "White Nose Syndrome" has been sweeping through bat populations.  Some species appear unharmed by it. Others have near total mortality once the stuff gets to them.  It started on the East Coast and has been heading west.  It arrived in Wisconsin last year.

Bats who contract the disease get a characteristic growth of white fungus around their muzzles. This can spread to larger surfaces like their wings.  They are unable to hibernate through the winter months and without the needed down time they are active under climate conditions that, due to cold and lack of food, are often fatal to them.

My contacts in the world of small flying things indicate that during the winter months you just have to stay away from them.  And since our northerly climes have long winters, this means a good chunk of fall and spring also.  Additionally for those who explore caves as a serious hobby, wearing the same clothes from one cave to the next could easily spread the infection.

The Official Word is that we need to stay out of bat hibernation areas from October 1st to May 15th, and that by law decontamination of clothing and caving equipment must be done between cave visits.

For those who need additional help finding sympathy for bats it is estimated that the die off from White Nose Syndrome means that every year 2.4 million pounds of insects are not getting eaten.  I don't know how many mosquitoes it takes to make a pound, let your imagination have fun with that concept.

So far the disease has not made it up my way.  Its presence in Wisconsin so far has been an isolated case in the far southwest corner of the Badger state.  But where it is found it has been recommended that there be a moratorium on caving.  And for brewery caves that have potential as bat hibernaculi that is probably sensible and humane advice.

Updates as more information becomes available.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dastards and Bastards

Last weeks post on the etymology of the word "jackanapes" got me thinking about how insults seem to have more staying power than other phrases.  Other than a few words of obvious recent vintage - I am thinking "nerd" here - a lot of insults are centuries old.  Maybe this is akin to the phenomenon of toddlers immediately and fluently picking up the sort of colorful words their parents might speak when they, for instance, might hit their thumb with a hammer.

I don't think this is going to become a regular feature mind you, but the other day I used the word "dastardly" and got to wondering just what a "dastard" really was.

Evidently the mid 15th century meaning of the word was "dazed".  Possibly an English adoption of a French word "dast" of that meaning, or of a Dutch word "dasen" which meant to act silly.  The suffix "-ard" is a derogatory way to designate somebody with a given quality.

Ladies and Gentlemen I present Cheech and Chong, the two most Dastardly men on planet Earth.

The word dastardly later morphed a bit and acquired the meaning of "one who shirks from danger". I suspect Cheech and Chong would not shirk but could quite easily get lost on their way to a fight. The current implications of super villain manipulative skill has wandered very far from the original meaning of the word.

As to other words ending in "-ard" the obvious one to look at next is the near homonym "bastard".

Not a particularly nice word in current use, it literally means a person - generally male - of illegitimate birth.  And it has the secondary implication of such a person being a mean spirited and harsh person.

But it started out being much less pejorative.  "Bastard" was an Old French word probably of 13th century vintage.  It meant the acknowledged illegitimate child of a nobleman.  This sort of thing happened pretty often back in the day, and the term is probably derived from "fils de bast".  Literally this means "pack saddle son" and suggests conception under improvised and rustic conditions.  A faint echo of this may persist here in northern climes.  When somebody is leaving a door open in cold weather we say "Close the door, were ya born in a barn?".

Being a Bastard back in the day was neither unusual nor held against you.  Jesus himself was "born in a barn" and with slightly ambiguous paternity.  Probably the sight of seeing princely half brothers inheriting the kit and kaboodle eventually caused the word to accrue the negative tone that many of its bearers understandably adopted.

There are a number of other "-ard" words, mostly circa 1400 and somewhat insulting.   Drunkard, Sluggard, Dotard, Dullard.  Niggard has mostly gone out of style, having acquired some negative connotations from the 19th century onward.  Perhaps black folks can still get away with using it.

Wizard is the only word of this structure that I know of with a positive connotation, and perhaps 600 years ago even that was equated with sorcery.

A surprise entry to the list would be "Petard" but it is a rather juvenile word, even if Bill Shakespeare liked it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Robotic Desk Racers - Part Two

I decided my robotics program needed some kind of logo.......

A day of steady progress.  Racer A needed to have some things shored up a bit.  We moved the battery to the lower deck and it made the entire machine much, much more stable.  A rotating flasher was also added for fun.

It turns out that some of the drive issues are because left and right are reversed on the controller.  To fix this it was necessary to re-route the wiring to the proper side.  I never show student's faces but this shot does capture their body language as they sort through the "wire spaghetti.".

Racer B will be a step up in difficulty.  It always is when you are building more from scratch.

For this one we are using Dumont gear boxes which are ridiculously over engineered.  Look at all that metal.  I did not have hubs for these.  Now, I could buy them on ebay for five dollars a pair, or...

Have the kids make 'em out of plywood.  Here is the final gearbox/hub/wheel assembly.  The wheels are Axman surplus and came off of airport luggage carts.

The gearboxes may be solid but various other elements of this are less sturdy than you might prefer, so we will see how this racer holds up to drive testing.  We hope to have it running next week.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Beating Plowshares into Swords

Back when my son and I were building combat robots we visited a lot of surplus stores and scrap yards, looking for components that were sturdy, cheap and when possible, cool.  One time we ran across a pallet full of metal boxes that all bore similar markings:

We thought these were promising items and used them in several machines.  The pink paint residue is from the original Barby Jeep weaponization.  The smaller green box represented pretty much the entire metallic structure of a 30 pound robot called Arbor Mortae the rest of it being made from a log.

The ventilation holes on top were so that the fans on our electronic speed controllers could keep things cool.  The other holes we drilled for wires going in and out.  The bottom unit was a kind of module "robot brain" that featured in several of our more comedic machines.  Literally we would end a tournament by driving the robot directly into a spinning hazard, reducing the machine to bouncing parts.  Then just stroll in, disconnect the armored electronics case and bring it home.  The other detritus mostly got swept into the dumpster.

Now I mostly use them for storing nuts and bolts.

I had known that FMC was a big defense contractor.  They made gun turrets for naval vessels at a factory in our area.  When that shut down a lot of their surplus made it out into the market.  These boxes actually seem to have held dies, taps and other machining tools.  But until very recently I did not know what FMC stood for.  Guess I figured it was Federal Munitions Company or some such.

Not so.  It actually stands for Food Machinery Corporation.

FMC got its start in 19th century southern California as the Bean Spray Pump Company.  It was started by a fellow named Bean but the agricultural theme was apt.  They made a pump used to spray insecticides.  They later acquired a couple of other companies including one that made machinery for canning plants.  The 1928 name change to Food Machinery Corporation reflects this.

Plowshares started getting seriously beaten into swords with the mass conversion of American industry to war production during World War Two.  There were many peculiar changes in product line that ensued.  The Singer sewing machine company became a major producer of bomb sites, rifle components and the M1911 pistol.  Most typewriter manufacturers converted over to making machine guns.

FMC built amphibious landing vehicles during the war, and continued on to be a sizable builder of armored vehicles throughout the post war years.

Like many big corporations it has grown, merged and spun off parts to the extent that it is difficult for the non accountant to tell exactly what they make now, but they continue to be very financially successful at whatever they are now up to.

Monday, January 5, 2015


There can be few things more embarrassing than old people using the words of young people.  When the attempt is made it is usually behind the cultural curve, so if I were to attempt a phrase like "What up dog?" it would sound inherently ridiculous and also be years out of date.  Which considering the majestic breadth and sweep of the English language a few years does not seem like much to me, but to younger ears anything more than a month or two in current use becomes mildewed and stuffy.

So to be on the safe side I am trying to use words appropriate to old people.  And to be very much on said safe side I try to give myself a few extra centuries for margin of error.

The other day I referred to one of my archeology pals as a "jackanapes".  He is a first rate fellow and deserves a first rate taunt.  Jackanapes is just that.

The history of the word goes back to at least the mid 15th century.  It is a slurring together of several words, indeed of several concepts.  As best I can tell it combines elements of "Jack" as a kind of generic term for "guy"; Naples, the great Italian port city, Ape, and perhaps Nape, the back of one's neck.

The current meaning of Jackanapes is a mischievous, impertinent rascal, usually but not exclusively a young boy.

Naples was an important trade connection for England, it was a place where goods from the rest of the Mediterranean world were traded and transshipped.  Supposedly there was actually a monkey named "Jack of Naples", or Jack'anapes,  performing on London streets,  He would presumably have a collar and chain and would certainly earn his peanuts by being an impertinent rascal.

But oddly there also was a historical figure whose nick name was Jack Napes, and some sources alternately attribute the term Jackanapes to him.

William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Sussex was a professional soldier in the Hundred Years war.  He later got mixed up in politics which eventually did cost him his head.

As a military commander he did about as well as can be expected for the era.  England was stomping around in France to no particular good effect.  Battles were won and lost, eventually he had to surrender to the French-Scottish forces led by Joan of Arc.  He spent three years as a prisoner before being released. There was some dark whispering that he had - scandalously - not paid his ransom and that he might be in league with the French.

Certainly he stayed on decent terms with them.  In fact the Earl of Sussex is a fairly noteworthy character in Shakespeare's Henry the VI plays.  In them he is correctly cast as the go between who arranged the marriage of Henry to a French princess, Margaret of Anjou.  Margaret was a strong queen wedded to a weak king.  This blog has been on her tracks once before in visiting The Queen's Cave in Northumberland. (As previously noted, the fact that the story of Queen Margaret commanding a bunch of ruffians - dare we say jackanapes? - to shelter her as she fled a crushing military defeat is too good to pass up, even if it was historically a bunch of nonsense!

The Earl of Sussex continued to tinker in politics.  This was never a good idea in Olde England and when there was a power vacuum from war and royal weakness it always ends badly.  When trying to flee to France he was arrested, given a perfunctory trial and then beheaded.

I think phrases that become popular enough to last for half a millennium must have quite a bit of cultural boost behind them.  So Jackanapes probably had several etymological "springs" from which it arose.  One has to assume that the original sense of a monkey on a leash had at its heart an actual monkey.  And the detail of being from Naples makes perfect sense.

William de la Pole, 1st Earl of Sussex was certainly a rascal of the first order.  Although not really one of the mischievous type.  He was a political wheeler-dealer and may in fact actually have been a traitor. Just how he got associated with a contemporary simian street performer is hard to say.  A simple insult from those he had wronged would suffice.  The Sussex coat of arms featuring a collar and chain was both ill chosen and an open invite to being compared to a monkey on a leash.  Perhaps the final cementing of the connection was made when the executioner's axe fell on the nape of his neck?

You may ask, how likely is it that a political insult from the 1400s would still be widely recognized in the 21st century?  Well, having Bill Shakespeare write you into a couple of plays does help.....
 Note:  I went looking for The Queen's Cave on a break from archeological digging in the summer of 2013.  My companion on the trip?  The very fellow I mention early in this post.  I submit to you:  This is the face of a Jackanapes!