Friday, February 26, 2016

Dispatches from Trowelsworthy Hall

For reasons that are frankly both arbitrary and silly I am known to my archeology pals, and to the Facebook world generally, as "Badger Trowelsworthy".  Yes, yes, technically this is not the name that I use in that pesky real world.  And, yes once again, it is a nominal violation of Facebook rules for which I shall doubtless one day be called to account.

But as I see it, we live in a world where people get to "self identify" as all sorts of implausible things and if you question it you are held to be the lowest form of "hater". So if I choose to view myself as a 106 year old,  moderately disreputable English Lord with a penchant for archeology and a loose connection with Wisconsin, well, who is harmed by the minor alteration of reality?

I enjoy dropping the occasional reference to the ancestral Manse, Trowelsworthy Hall, and to the devious machinations of the distant branches of the Trowelsworthy family in their ongoing efforts to lay greedy hands upon the keys to the place.

Of course in the age of the internet it is difficult to write genuine satire.  Reality is often just as strange.  I should have checked first to see if there was an actual Trowelsworthy family in the UK or its Dominions.  And if there were places extant that would be logical locations for the oft mentioned yet never located Trowelsworthy Hall. Guess I shoulda......

For instance.  Up in Alberta Canada there apparently exists a place called Trowelsworthy Farms.  True, its offerings of chemical and antibiotic free beef, elk, rabbit, rabbit, pork, lamb and goat may not be to everyone's taste.

Also up in Alberta, near a small town called Mirror, we find Trowelsworthy Industries. It seems to be a builder's supply store and by virtue of similar owner's names, must be associated with the Farms.

But if you were looking for a plausible setting for the alternate reality that Badger Trowelsworthy occupies your best bet would actually be in Dartmoor, a wild and lonely area in Devon, UK.  There out on the windswept moors you can walk right up to a rock formation called Great Trowlesworthy Tor.

photo credit Nilfanion

You will of course by now have noted the alternate spelling as Trowlesworthy but in a family of such noble and ancient lineage this will happen from time to time.  An Ordnance map of the area shows another clue..

Alas for those grasping younger Trowelsworthys...I am thinking of you Otteria and Biff...the Trowlesworthy Warren shown above is not the ramshackle Manor House but an area used for keeping rabbits "from medieval times to the 1950s".

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Its been a long haul the last six to twelve months.  I have stuck with three times a week posting all through full time work in the ER, and my dad's long last days, and through the fun but crazy robotics projects at the middle school and FIRST levels.

But these have all cut into my ability to write interesting posts, both from reduced travel and from simple fatigue.

I going to go to a twice a week posting schedule next month.  There's just a lot going on. I am restarting a bit of clinic work then have a couple of  FIRST robotics events that could just plunge head long into the May travel season.

Thanks for hanging in there.

Next week begins March of 2016.  Five years since Detritus of Empire first appeared.  I am approaching 1,000 posts.

After a brief rest I think 2016 should be a very good year for writing.  There will be some of the usual features, back to England and to the excavations at Vindolanda.  There will be more brewery cave hunting and minor league baseball.  I don't do "grandpa" stuff but just having a delightful new generation on hand should help relieve the fatigue.  The "Tacitus MD" category will come "out of retirement" at least for a while.

Monday, February 22, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Progress Report Six

The last two weeks of build season were hectic.  It looked for a while as if we would be done early enough to get a solid week of driving and programming practice in but that did not work out.

Some problems were anticipated.  Our "Crawler Wheels" that let us walk up the sides of obstacles were driven by a simple motor/gearbox that is part of a snowblower.  I kept expecting it to fail under the abuse.  But we just kept on crashing it into things and it kept working.  Eventually we upped the demand on it in various ways.  Finally it did stop working and just gave us a frustrated humming noise.  Open it up and you find:

We had known all along that it contained both metal and plastic gears.  This is a bad mix, as in the end metal  will always win.  Note the chewed off teeth of the white plastic gear.  Time for an upgrade:

Here our main fabricator is working on mounting the new all metal motor/gear box and associated axle.  Sparks fly.

This picture is illustrative.  The new motor is buried deep in a metal cage.  Note the solid welded steel and the "This Side Up" arrow.  We have likely gone seriously overboard on structural toughness.  To test the new front plate I hit it repeatedly with a metal bar.  This looks like something built by Klingons.

Other problems are harder to sniff out.  My son was helping out on a late season Saturday.  Peering inside the robot he noted that a bushing - a smooth metal sleeve that reduces friction - had been put on backwards and was working its way out.  This put the entire drive system at risk of catastrophic failure.  So we had to spend a precious hour and a half doing robot surgery deep in the mechanical innards of the machine.

The red stuff is gear box grease, not blood.  The small white flecks I fear are shaved off aluminum from the output shaft.  Glad we caught this before the whole thing gave out.

We have some difficult to reach areas and I do have concerns that if we must do repairs under time pressure it will not be easy.

But other than that......

We had the machine in completed state in time to take it to a practice tournament three days before the "Stop Building" date.  Here it is in the pit area on its swell new cart.  Having it up at this angle allows for transit through doors and still permits maintenance access to almost all of it.

Less so at the practice event, but at the real thing you spend a lot of time chatting with passersby. Some are just curious.  Some are FIRST officials (at this point all adult advisers take two big steps back), some are scouts from other teams.  Our visitor here looks skeptical.  To be fair, our robot is an unsophisticated tank compared to many.

Since adults are not supposed to help build the machine, and since I in any case lack noteworthy welding, machining or programming skills, it can be fairly asked just what exactly I do.  I organize stuff.  Here is our box of likely spare parts and a stuck on master guide of tools needed to repair and maintain the inner workings of the machine.

And we have tackle boxes.  Small mechanical parts.  Small pneumatic parts.  Electrical connectors.

The practice run went pretty well we thought.  Simplistic tank inspired designs do not break easily. We saw quite a few machines that day with wobbly, flimsy looking elements and yes, parts of them did break and/or fall off.  Having felt a bit guilty about how hard we pushed the kids during build season I walked around the pit area and saw about half the teams with robots that looked way shy of three days from completion.  The most elegant, sophisticated, Marvel o' Technology design can't defeat a stupid, solid metal dumbot if the former does not run.

Here is what the drivers will see at our real event.  The robot goes into mandatory storage tomorrow night.  A well earned rest for a few weeks before we start our event prep on other fronts.....

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Old Green Ping Pong Table Lives On

A decade or so back our neighbor offered us an old ping pong table.  Modern ones are made of cheap fiber board but this was solid half inch plywood. And such a pleasing dark green paint job.

It seemed to us to be the ideal things for "projects".

Over the years we have carved up pieces of this for a wide array of robotics undertakings.  It has become something of a tradition.  Or a good luck talisman.

In our current FIRST robotics project I am encouraging the kids to build in some small good luck charms.  Maybe a box inside somewhere with four leaf clovers or something like that.  But for myself I only want to make sure that one of the last little bits of the ping pong table makes it in.  Because I thought I was down to the last few square inches of it.

But as I looked around I saw it surviving in various places.

In this photo from the middle school "Robot Dragster" project of a few years back no fewer than three pieces of "Pong" can be seen.  The frame of this is still jammed under a workbench in my shop.

Below is a reinforced wheel from a demo bot that dates back to my "Robot Carny" days.  It was designed to be rapidly assembled and disassembled by kids.  See the green paint peeking out?

Various slabs of the table are hanging around as base supports for tools.  This is a metal shear.  I seem to recall several previous uses for this piece of wood as suggested by the random holes in it.

So if it comes to it I guess I can salvage enough bits and bobs of the old Ping Pong table to keep sneaking parts into robotic projects for a while now.  As to our FIRST robot one of the kids used a small, sturdy green square to mount our "power on" indicator.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Brewery Caves - Points of the Compass

In a season where it is difficult to do any real world exploring we have to settle for what we can get. As I wander the internet looking for bits of 19th century brewery history I come across mention of brewery caves in places I am quite unlikely to visit.  Where for instance are the furthest North, South, East and West brewery caves in North America?


It would have to be the Kreische brewery in La Grange Texas.  I was surprised, not that Texans wanted beer in the 1850's, but that somebody was ingenious enough to find a way to keep a brewery cave cold in that climate.  The secret of course was a spring of cool water down in the vault.

Today the Kreische site is part of a State Park, and tours of the ruins are offered.  I think the cave is now sealed off.


Since the east coast had the majority of the US population in the mid 19th Century breweries and their caves were everywhere.  Picking an east coast example is way too easy.  But arbitrarily how about we give the nod to the Crown Finish caves in Brooklyn New York.

The photo is from a nice article in the Wall Street Journal about a young couple using the abandoned 70 foot long tunnel/cave as a place to age Gorgonzola cheese.  I like Gorgonzola.


You can't get much further west than San Francisco.  And tucked in among modern buildings is a curious place called Albion Castle. It was built as the Albion Ale and Porter brewery in 1870 and was reworked as something of a folly castle by a sculptor in the 1930s.  There is a spring cooled cave underneath. There is some good information out there on Albion Castle.  I enjoyed this  article by a Susan Saperstein, and from it got this photo of the caves (credit same to Kaleen Kenning)


So where is the furthest north surviving brewery cave?  That's a tricky question.  There were a few breweries up in Gold Rush era Alaska but what with permafrost and all there would not have been caves dug.  You had plenty of ice, and above ground ice houses were more practical.  So I can toss out a few candidates but can't give a solid answer yet.

How about:  Princeton British Columbia?  although you might argue that this has been destroyed by road work it is often the case that it has not been entirely wiped out.  Being a small brewery the caves seem to have been used longer than usual, and of course that whole Prohibition thing did not hurt them.  One suspects in fact, an increase in production.....

In Duluth Minnesota there is a Brewery Creek, on the banks of which there was a very early brewery. But the rock there is too hard for easy tunneling, and when you have all the ice in Lake Superior to work with, an ice house makes more sense.

The inglorious appearance of Brewery Creek today
Maine is quite far north and was settled early.  But settled by priggish tee-totallers who gave the name "Maine Laws" to a spectrum of spoil sport anti-alcohol legislation.

I am pretty sure that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan had brewery caves...after all, a mining rush always brings the two necessary ingredients together: thirsty men and digging proficiency. Perhaps somebody up that way will report in.

But in the end I suspect that the Furthest North brewery cave will turn out to be Canadian.  I have in fact been chasing down information on a couple of possibilities that will have to wait until another posting...

Monday, February 15, 2016

After the Winter

I have my cherished delusions and the Early Spring is chief among them.  Yes, blizzards notwithstanding I begin to envision warm, verdant idylls around the first of February.  Hey, it happens once in a while, usually in peculiar weather anomalies such as Rapid City South Dakota. Why, they once had a 49 degree (F) temperature rise in two minutes....followed by a 58 degree drop over 27 minutes but I am ignoring that part.  Remember, I'm delusional.

But back in the real world it has been a quite tolerable winter.  Not too much sub zero weather, only the occasional blanket of snow and even that is an excuse for impromptu neighborhood fun.  You have to keep a close eye on things to ensure that you are out with your snow blower at just the right moment.  Out too soon and you will have to plow twice.  Wait too long and the folks next door will steal a march on you and plow your sidewalk before you can get there.  When timed just right it is a sort of mechanical ballet done to the basso thrum of internal combustion, we meet at our shared sidewalk convergence, nod to each other and pirouette our turns.  Of course then veering off to plow the sidewalks on the rest of our half block before the folks there can roust their sluggish teens out the door with shovels.

FIRST robotics has made things fly by.  Nothing like a time compressed major undertaking to make the days and weeks seem fleeting.  Am I the kind of person who wakes up at 5AM having in my sleep come up with a nifty solution to a technical quandary?  I am surprised you would even ask.

And so I wind down my retirement.  It looks as if I am heading back to work the last week of February.  This would be an 11 week hiatus, eclipsing my previous longest retirement of five weeks.

It's been nice.  I could get used to it.

In my current mode there are so few rules.  Be awake, be asleep any time I choose other than the six day a week robotics build sessions.  No long distance drives, no being up all night having to actually make life and death decisions.  We have a routine for daily exercise and for regular grandchild time.

I am going to take the work life a bit easier too.  Clinic and Urgent Care stuff, no more night and weekend ER punishment.  Enough to keep me out from underfoot and to avert guilt regards minor extravagances.

Adventures ahead of course.  Another trip to Vindolanda for a bit of Roman excavation.  We should have a jolly crew on hand this year.  Oh and some other interesting ventures. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 12, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Progress Report Five

For much of the build campaign we have been in an odd cycle.  We have a great session, lots gets done and the robot progresses.  Then we have a lousy one.  Kids fussing around doing poor quality work that needs to be scrapped and done again.  And when kids are not working productively they are harder to supervise.  Is the goofing off a cause or an effect of a frustrating lack of progress day?

But as we dig into our last couple of weeks the progress has become more consistent, more good days than set back days.  We figured out which kids work best in certain roles.  And they surprise you.  A couple turn out to have decent welding skills.  One who has a hard time explaining his work is nonetheless very accomplished at the autonomous programming elements.  Although "the guys" tend to be more hands on with the mechanical work a call goes out often for one of our more petite team members as she has hands that can reach some difficult corners of the frame system.

As it turns out there are more tight corners and hard to reach spots than you might expect...

And as we get into the home stretch we are finding out that each system impacts all others.  The way we mount the pulleys driving the sweep arms impacts where we can mount electronics.  Removing a support element to make that easier allows the belts to loosen up, etc, etc.

But if belts, and time, are slipping away a bit it is important to note that some things go very well indeed.  We had the horrid realization the other day that we had been testing our climbing system on a wood mock up.  In the tournament it will be steel. Have we misjudged our ability to crawl up a smoother surface?  Two of the team were detailed to make a steel mock up.  Fifteen minutes later they had this done.  And we were able to climb right over it.

It is a talented group of kids.  And a young bunch.  Effectively we will have them all back next year with lots more smarts.

As for the robot it looks as if we will have to give up any notion of the Grand Finale wall scaling mechanism.  It is more important to get the basics down first.  Without the %%##** bumpers mounted this is approximately its final form.  All systems on board...we just need them to work together well.  The same of course applies to the team.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On the Extreme Persistence of Memories

How far back can you actually remember something?

My recent mutterings about clarity of memories got me thinking on that question.  My premise was that stressful events helped lock in details of memories.

I do remember 22 November 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  The Principal came around to each of our classrooms at Lowell Elementary school.  He stood near the doorway to the room and told us.  There was an American flag above the door.  Every morning we pledged Allegiance to it.  Do grade school kids still do that?

But that was a couple of years after we moved to our new house.  I have a few memories of the previous house.  Since I started school at age 4 I can push memories back to age 3.

Maybe memories is over stating things.  I can recall scenes, something like little video clips.

Circa 1960 the Baby Boom was the dominant social theme.  Kids were everywhere.  Our neighborhood had the usual pack of small folk dashing about in the back yards of the block.  I remember one slightly chubby kid.  I recall that we had a never used brick barbecue in our yard.  It had a square ceramic chimney.  I have a mental image of this kid getting stuck in it.  Now, no kid would climb down a chimney head first, so my image of pudgy legs kicking in the air is no doubt artifice.  My dad came and helped him out.  In my memory my father was always wearing a white shirt.

Here is another moment in time.  I am up earlier that the rest of the family. I go padding down to the kitchen.  I open the refrigerator.  It is of course white and has the rounded corners of that design era. It has bright, stark white light inside and is humming contentedly to itself.  My height lets me see the bottom racks better than the top.  I grab a tub of cottage cheese.  I don't remember getting a spoon but I must have.  I dig in, take a healthy bite and...yuck.  The stuff had gone bad.  I associate this memory with the birth of my youngest brother.  Eisenhower era dads were somewhat hapless in matters domestic. Perhaps my mom was in the hospital or home and recuperating.  On the basis of this experience I did not eat cottage cheese for another two decades.

At the risk of some slight, if undeserved, embarrassment I think I can push the memory frontier back to age 2.

We lived in a duplex.  My parents owned it.  Upstairs lived a woman named Kay.  She was a nice lady who would give me candy.  I remember walking up to her door and knocking on it.  I had a little leather pouch that was just the thing for putting candy into.  Kay answered the door.  I recall, gosh blushing a bit here, that she patted my bottom to make sure I was dry.  I sincerely hope that I am remembering far back enough that I was in diapers.

I don't remember if I got any candy that trip.

Monday, February 8, 2016

On the Clarity of Memories

I wonder how much of what we experience in life is either not perceived at all, or is remembered only briefly.  Phone numbers, inter twined small town genealogies, what I had for breakfast. The kind of information that I either don't need to have available to me, or that can be quickly referenced by my smart phone or my smarter wife.

But sometimes there are moments of clarity; occasions when you see, hear and perceive more than usual.  Often they are times of stress.

Scenario One.

It is two generations ago.  I am in college and getting ready to take the MCAT, the standardized test that Medical School admissions folks look at with such great interest.  I have no memory of studying for it - nowadays I strongly suspect it is standard practice to do extensive prep.

But I do recall the early evening before the test.  I think it would be spring of my Junior year.  In any case it was a day with the pleasant warmth of Spring.  I walked over to the banks of the Mississippi river on the University of Minnesota campus.  There are steep limestone bluffs there and if you walk along a little path down below you are soon in an area where you can have solitude.

I had along a book of  Tolkien poetry and remember reading one of his early efforts that later mutated into the Hobbit, a piece called "The Hoard".  I had a black marker pen with me for some reason and I amused myself drawing little runes on flat bits of rock and setting them up in a row. Rather ritualistic now that I think of it. Down in a river valley you get an interesting juxtaposition of stimuli.  There is a steady hum of traffic and urban activity, but you can't see any of it.  It seems to be a combination of sound that travels over the surface of the water and vibration that comes up from underneath you. The limestone where I sat was dry, warm, lit by a sun that was just starting to dip down to a descent that would give me full illumination.  I was calm and relaxed.  Justifiably so as it turns out, I did very well the next day.  Not too long after that I was starting my First Year studies in a stark, modern building atop the same cliff.

Scenario Two.  A few months back.

It is generally true in medicine, and particularly so in Emergency Medicine, that problems are rarely the fault of one individual.  Multiple small mistakes cumulatively add up to a crisis.  The patient, the EMS crew, the triage nurse, they all have roles to play.  But in the end it is my job to put all together and deal with it, because ultimately it is my responsibility.  And make no mistake, doctors are fallible.  Did I spend too much time on that other patient because it was a charming, cute kid or an uncharming,demanding drug seeker?  Was my mind on something else when a crucial clue was briefly offered up to me, only to be replaced by a whole different set of information on another patient?

It works much the same in non medical crises too.  A situation you think is under control is not, and you are at the "purple and gasping" stage of things.

You have to dig in and deal with it.  Figuring out how things went awry has to wait.

I find myself again sitting on a rock.  I am having a very direct conversation with somebody whose job it was to manage a problem.  Said individual has gone on vacation and is not sure when a critical deadline is.  And expects that everything will work out somehow.  And has a dodgy cell phone connection.

This time is is not Spring but Fall.  The weather is as I sit is changing from still and humid into a cool, breezy day with storm clouds swirling like angry jellyfish overhead.  A nearby factory has a retro noon hour whistle and I hear it sound, sending rising octaves up into the charged atmosphere.

I'm in a little park and in front of me is somebody's failed project, a sort of "water garden" that was once supposed to high light native plants but is now just a muddy puddle with weeds.  Probably it got that way due to some combination of distraction, diversion of resources, maybe some kind of blight or fungus, hard to say. The plants look sad and ill.

This being Wisconsin there is a brief whiff of brewing beer that brushes past me.  Hops and malt doing their subtle, aromatic dance.

What I am hearing over the phone does not make me happy.  How long has the "patient" been slipping into distress?  What really is the underlying condition here?  How much time do we have before Full Code, an event from which so very few recover in a decent state?

I take a few deep breaths, the air around me having cooled considerably during the half hour chat. A few pleasantries are exchanged of course, but it is time for direct instructions, repeated several times. This must happen.  It must happen by this point in time.  I must be given confirmation that this has happened.  I must have this confirmation by this point in time.

It is not me at my best.  I am in default mode a mildly introverted guy whose take on the world around him is mostly whimsical.  But when I must do so I can throw a switch and go into Emergency mode.  I can be Direct.  I can ignore extraneous input when necessary.  I can be bossy.

If you live your entire life this way you will not have many friends.  But in the unusual circumstances of an impending Code Blue it is not only acceptable but necessary.  I have never had a patient that I have pulled back from the brink ever complain about it.  I consider such griping unlikely but in theory it could happen.  I simply regard is as far less probable than a patient I let die coming back to tell me what a kind and gentle bedside manner I had when they were blue and gasping.

I am musing on allegory this week.  Those few who know the back story will understand and should not feel a need to comment. The land of Allegory can be a difficult place but also a whimsical one.  I find myself, crisis now past, still sitting on a solid rock, and still smelling the faint hints of brewing beer, a Promise of better times ahead with my treasured friends and family.

Friday, February 5, 2016

FIRST Robotics Progress Report Four

Well we got a little off track.

There are so many fussy little things to consider in this business.  For instance, after we tore apart the proof of concept version of our robot and rebuilt in metal we noticed something odd.  Forward and reverse were backwards.  The software team offered to fix this on their side but after a bit of head scratching we figured out that when we cut the frame down and rebuilt it our 30 inch by 30 inch drive base simply had the front and back panels put on in reverse.  Simple fix, just switch the red and black wires going into the drive motors.

We also lost a day to.....snow.  Yes as a school related activity when school is cancelled we don't meet.  As a consolation the blizzard was pretty wide spread so one assumes most teams we are competing against (and in FIRST fashion cooperating with) also had to stand down for the day.

But work goes on.

Problem.  Drilling aluminum makes nasty little shavings.  You must have your electronics elsewhere when you are creating this sort of debris as it will make expensive things like speed controllers go up in smoke.

Solution.  Turn the robot over.  Kick it a few times.  Run the dust buster.  Wipe the inside clean with paper towels.

In our new Dark Age so few kids know how to use even simple tools  I enjoy turning them loose with a new one.  "Have you ever operated an angle grinder before?"

We have not actually used our shop capabilities fully yet, but have started to fabricate a few parts with our CNC mill.  This fairly simple hub needed to be made because I did not get around to ordering the pre made version.  So, lets make us some...

I mentioned our electronics.  They are competition ready and mounted on a board that is easy to drop on and off the robot thanks to some easy quick connectors going to the battery and motors.

So overall things are going well.  Except, well except for the bumpers.

For safety reasons all robots are required to have bumpers of specified size and construction. Because you have to be able to change "team colors" quickly you need to have one set in red and one in blue. There is no creativity in their design or construction.  It is a tedious task to build them.  And sometimes bored workers do less than perfect work.

We have had no end of problems with these darned things.  In part it was because we built them before we had a clear idea of the exact size of the robot.  Kind of like buying clothes before your child is born I guess.  They were sloppy work and our attempts to fit them with what looked like a clever mounting system....just fell apart.

I think tomorrow the old bumpers go into the dumpster. I shall laugh gleefully while tossing them.  If the kids are supposed to learn things perhaps one thing to learn is that on occasion a project can get so messed up that the best thing to do is scrap and start over.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


It's good to learn a new word from time to time.  And recently one of my archaeology pals gave me a swell one:  Saggar.

This is what one looks like:

Basically a saggar is a simple ceramic vessel in which other ceramics are fired in the kiln.  They turn up pretty often in UK archaeological sites.  But while the concept is quite old, the name seems to be more recent.  The saggar protects the pottery from the damaging effects of uneven heat.  The word is said to be a contraction of "safeguard".

An alternate form of the word is "sagger".  Wikipedia lists two other definitions of this word as being a Soviet era anti-tank missile, and.....a person who wears his baggy pants down low...

Oy.  A belt, my style oblivious friend, would be a prudent safeguard for you.

Monday, February 1, 2016

In search of Medium Foot

It is really quite cold in Wisconsin in January.  So when we were out for a walk recently we were surprised to see this:

We followed the tracks for a couple of blocks before we lost them.  Quite a few of the foot prints had that odd drag mark in back of the heel.  What was a barefoot shuffling person doing out on such a frosty day?  Or was this track made by something like this?

I guess this was a fashion fad that I had missed.  Just as well, I think these are creepy.