Saturday, April 30, 2016

Distant Pastures, Worries Left Behind

Off to places new and to places familiar.  Posting dependent on the vagaries of modern technology and ancient stone walls.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Robotic Bon Voyage

I have become accomplished at bending and tweaking my schedule so that I can "almost" be in two places at once.  But there are limits.  My upcoming archeology jaunt to Vindolanda is always in early to mid May.  And of late the timing of my Advanced Robotics class has shifted so that they overlap.

I have some ideas on how to resolve this in the future, but for 2016 my solution was to get the students off to a good start and then turn the show over to some of my kids from the high school FIRST robotics group.  Its good to have Minions after all.

Progress on the last day of my nominal supervision:

We had the basic drive system running a week earlier.  It is touchy, hope the kids can drive without crashing.

Arms are tricky.  The best system mimics nature, with the linear actuator providing pull akin to a muscle, and the yellow towing strap being like a tendon.  This is a "shoulder joint".

Here is an "elbow joint".  This was a bit fussy, the actuator has to be perfectly lined up.  And like a real elbow you should not hyper extend it.  The metal part of the joint comes from a power wheel chair that was donated for our use almost 15 years ago.  I keep reusing the parts again and again.

My goal for my last session with them was to have the robot wave good bye to me under radio control.  We did not quite manage it but the joints do all work, they just need to be attached to their electronics.  Running it straight off the batteries I did get a feeble salute:

My high school helpers will have three weeks to get the younger kids to finish off some power connections and a candy dispenser.  They might pull it off, they might not.  Sometimes kids learn more with less adult input, and can get as smart by seeing what does not work as by seeing what does.

I left the robot assembled but not fully powered, lurking in its storage closet.  I hope it provides a few unexpected surprises for people who come across it unawares.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

An Uncomfortable Artifact

Look, we can all agree that history contains a lot of bad stuff.  Wars, Crimes, Catastrophes, and Stupid Ideas.  The further back in time they lie the less they make us angry or sad.  Odd, that time seems to be more of a factor than how awful the fact is question really is.  We might briefly acknowledge a civil war or famine in Roman times.  We get hopping mad about some ignorant thing a politician said yesterday.

So I present today's artifact with trepidation.  How old does an Uncomfortable Artifact have to be before we just shake our heads and say, "well, times were different then."?

This came out of a box at a local thrift sale:

Wait, wait....this is the year 2016.  I must insert a warning to Delicate Flowers who would feel micro-aggressed or something.  If you are easily offended:

And with your peripheral vision click off of this page.

There.  With that out of the way....

What the Hell is this?

Inappropriate on so many levels.  We no longer think it acceptable to show semi-clad children.  What was once a silly "Copper Tone" ad would now be regarded as deeply creepy stuff.  It is still OK to poke fun at rural people - note the standard sight gag of outhouse and mail order catalog. (Sorry, oh my British friends, if you don't get this one I won't explain it).  But regarding black children as slow talkin' pickaninnies is entirely uncouth.  (Oddly I am told that Black individuals are among the collectors of this sort of artifact).

But once you get past the initial dissonance between current and past culture norms, this simple post card has a very odd feature.  Specifically, why does the newspaper say "Sinking of the Maine" in obviously scrawled on lettering?

To answer that one I need to back up a little.

In the bottom right corner you can see the copyright on this is from Curt Teich and Co.  This Chicago firm was America's largest producer of postcards in the Golden Age of same.  Teich was a German immigrant trained in printing, who came to America in 1895.  He worked his way up from "printer's devil" to foreman before moving to Chicago and starting his own firm in 1898....the same year as the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana's harbor.

In 1905 Teich took a memorable cross country journey by train, stopping in a wide variety of small towns and snapping photos.  His timing was superb.  Postage on cards had been reduced to one cent a few years earlier.  Automobile travel was just starting to take off.  Teich had the technical skills of the German printers who had to date dominated the business.  He also had the idea that businesses in small towns would want to order high quality advertising post cards at low prices - one dollar per thousand cards.  His 2500 mile trip resulted in orders amounting to $767,000 as measured in inflation adjusted dollars.

Teich and Company had a great run, finally closing in 1978.  Their company archives have been preserved and contain some 400,000 postcards from about 10,000 geographic locations.  While sitting down to write this I thumbed through a few cards we have sitting around our cabin.  The usual sort of things you find "Up North", images showing stringers full of fish, rustic bumpkins and outhouses, main streets.  There was no shortage of Teich views.

With that background what can we make of the above?

Well, with a portfolio that diverse Teich had a few genres we now consider in poor taste.  The racial sensitivities of an earlier age allowed for more "humor" at the expense of others.  There are dating guides to Teich products but they are not inclusive and shed little light on the designation C-245. But by tracking down various similar cards with post marks I can say that this series "Chocolate Drops Comics" dates to the 1940's.

But what on earth is "Sinking of the Maine" doing on that newspaper.  It does not quite sound like a double meaning.  It is a reference that would be considered outdated to a nation freshly outraged by "Remember Pearl Harbor".  Post cards from the early 1900s referencing the Maine are uncommon and none of them look anything like this so I think we can rule out a simple reprint of old stock.

I did find an occasional reference to similar cards with a 1940 post mark on them.  If this is actually the issue date of the series then lets chalk it up to odd coincidence.  But if this is after Pearl Harbor then perhaps there is another meaning here.

Curt Teich had several sons one of whom was an Army Lieutenant stationed in the Phillipines at the time of simultaneous surprise attacks there and at Pearl Harbor.  Lawrence Teich was taken prisoner and died on the Bataan Death March.

Is this scrawled on headline an oblique reference to the events of December 7th, 1941? I suppose it is unlikely.  But Curt Teich and Company did go on to become a major supplier of maps for the US Military.  They made 50% of all maps used by the US Army and 100% of the maps showing invasion beaches.  Curt Teich was said to have been devastated by the loss of his son.  Perhaps the reference to the more recent sneak attack was being gently alluded to in the discordant mention of an earlier one.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Anaerobes

The tendency for archaeologists to form garage bands of varying levels of proficiency has been the subject of sporadic scholarly interest.  Some maintain that the constant, repetitive action of scraping a trowel is similar ergonomically to playing many stringed instruments.  More plausibly the impoverished life style common to diggers and musicians is simply a natural synergy.

Whichever theory you prefer the history of a band generally known as "The Anaerobes" is an interesting case study.

With the presence among its founding members of a certain "L.A. Scott"- who was an actual entertainment industry lawyer - one would imagine that the band would be on the fast track to stardom.

But problematically the members of the band could not even agree on a name.  Late nights at the pub were occupied not by practice but by pointless debate as to whether the group should be called "Willy and the Wellies" or "Welly and the Willies".

All struggling musicians are admonished with similar advice; "Don't Quit the Day Job".  And in fact this proved good counsel.  It was only when the group was fully engaged in excavating deep, villainous, organically preserved layers that there appeared both a name "The Anaerobes" and a lead singer who peered quizzically over from an adjacent but far less uncouth trench.

Sunny Delgato was certainly the most talented member of the group and the second most enigmatic. In this regard she lags slightly behind lead guitar "Pierre" who hails from an unspecified water logged European country.

Soon the band began to enjoy a modicum of popularity.  And even if it was mostly of the delusional sort it was for all of that, no less enjoyable.  A series of albums was forthcoming.

Happy times indeed, best captured by this photo of band and roadies.  The raised hand in the back is not a random fan but instead a passing groundskeeper on his lawnmower.

Of course there are a number of classic signs that a band is running out of creative energy, or perhaps falling apart from internal strife.  The appearance of a "Greatest Hits" album is usually the last you ever hear of a musical group.

And so it was with considerable surprise and delight that fans of the group - the entirety of which would fit around a single table at the Twice Brewed Inn - recently received a notification in the form of an ancient wax stylus tablet:

The Anaerobes Reunion Tour, Northern England.  May 2016.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Archaeology of Kitsch

After seeing the Wonders of the Ancient world standing next to roller coasters and fast food joints I was regarding the hyper kitsch of Wisconsin Dells in a somewhat different light.  One place that looked to have had better days caught my eye for a closer look.

The CASTLE OF ERROR as we shall call it stood right next to a brightly colored T shirt shop and across from a slightly more frightening place that promised you could FEED LIVE ALLIGATORS and see such sights as a two headed turtle and a 400 pound albino python.  Maybe the jump and shriek spook house attraction just couldn't compete.

But how long had it been out of business?  And what kind of place was it?

First of all it was not a very convincing Spooky Castle.  Here you can see an easy escape route for those clear headed enough to just scoot under the faux wood door.  The yellow patch is where the foam insulation that seems to have been the chief building material has peeled off.

The CASTLE shared an alley with the Go Kart track next door so it was fairly easy to peek inside the ominous, brooding stronghold...

Huh.  Looks more like a hamburger shack.

And that guess was not far off.  Probably practical considerations prevented the proprietors from covering the front step with slime and ooze, so you can look down at the entrance and still see:

A quick Google search showed this to be an Italian deli.  Its menu seemed pretty basic.  They bragged about having a flight simulator you could "fly" in while waiting for your order to be up.  The underlying structure still looks wrong for a deli, so perhaps Bomberinos was not the first occupant.  As to the most recent owners, one of them still seems to be keeping the spooky faith just inside the front door:

I'd like to think he found my spectral image good company.

Of course Archaeology always comes down to dating.  Bomberino's goes back far enough that I saw one of their menus on ebay. It seems to have been a small chain that closed its last store in 2003.  And taking a look on Google Earth I see that the sign of the CASTLE had already begun to fall off in the spring of 2014.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kitsch Overload in Wisconsin Dells

I enjoy silly things like road side attractions.  Big goofy statues, kitschy souvenir shops, that sort of thing.  I am usually ready for more.  But a recent trip to Wisconsin Dells was a bit of an overdose. Gaudy, over-sized, out of place stuff everywhere. After a half hour I had seen enough.

Hey, is that the Colosseum out there beyond the water slides and the Go Kart track?

Why, yes it is.  Or at least an old looking facade over a modern hotel.

I will spare you the worst of it, it was not a particularly good day for photos anyway.  But this sure caught my eye....

A fleet of moose themed delivery vehicles.  But the name Moose Jaw, the concept of pizza, and this view of the world....seemed a bit discordant.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tree Shaped Tombstones - a soldier remembered.

Lake Delton Wisconsin. Just known as Delton back when this monument went up.

There is a lot going on with this one.  Ropes, some sort of angled measuring device (?), ferns and four different names.  John and Hannah were presumably the parents of the main fellow memorialized here, a chap by the name of Charles W. Barnes.  Alas, it seems likely that Johnie Barnes was his son.

The upper part of the monument has an unusual and hard to photograph inscription that wraps almost all the way around it.  It says "OUR SOLDIER BROTHER".  It also gives the birth and death dates for Charles, 1835-1894.

Behind this tree shaped monument are individual tombstones for Charles and his parents.  They look older, so the 1901 date on the severed branch must indicate when this family monument was put up. Perhaps by Charles' literal brothers?  Or by his fellow soldiers?   Because Mr. Barnes was indeed a soldier.

Confusingly there appear to be two men of this name who served in Wisconsin regiments during the Civil War.  This one enlisted on February 4th 1862.  After serving two years with the 17th Wisconsin is noted to have been in Company G of the 14th Wisconsin for most of 1864, mustering out at the end of that year.  He may have been from New Buffalo Michigan.

The 17th Wisconsin regiment fought in most of the hardest battles in the Western theater.  The men of the regiment finished their term of service in January of 1864, returning home for either civilian life or a "veteran's furlough".  Barnes chose to re-enlist in a different regiment for some reason.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

My - More or Less - Top Ten Movies

A comment from my posting "The Hardest Working Man in Sci Fi Hollywood:

I am intrigued by the movies you noted after mentioning this top ten list. What else is in your top ten? Also, those "youngsters" over at renaissance fan have youngsters of their own!

OK, fair enough.  First lets get something out of the way.  A prerogative of age is the privilege to regard anyone you have known since they were in diapers to be "youngsters" for all time.  Deal with it.  Oh, and if by youngsters, plural, you are hinting at some sort of announcement I say "Well played Sir, well played indeed."

I have never done "Top Ten" lists.  Frankly they seem like a gimmick.  But thinking on my favorite movies of all time I got to wondering, why these?  What elevated them above the forgettable popcorn grazers?

I think the Best movies are actually "about" something.  There is a theme that is not obvious without reflection.  Perhaps this is why my Top list features so few recent entries as Hollywood has of late been cranking out visually stunning dreck that is assembled more than written, and that has no purpose beyond fast food merchandise tie ins and the Chinese market.

Do not infer any particular ranking from this list.  This is just the order that came to me.

1. Alien Series.  Oh, mostly the first two.

What it seems to be about: Slasher movies in Outer Space with disturbing sexual overtones.
What it is really about: An indictment of the sins of Western Culture.  Colonialism and Third World Brush Wars.  Regards the first there are assorted references to various Conrad novels and characters sprinkled here and there.  And the Vietnam quagmire scenario in the second film is overt.  But it is done without the tedious guilt that is usually heaped on us for our past.  We are rooting for those poor crewmen and later for the Colonial Marines.

The sub theme is the importance of family and comradeship in the face of peril.

2. Terminator Series.  I will embrace the first three.

What it seems to be about:  Killer Robots

What it is really about:  Free Will versus Predestination.  "No Fate but what we make".  What a crock. You can learn things you have no business knowing.  You can dispatch high tech assassins out of Deep Time.  You can try any trick in the book.  And Judgement Day still comes, every bit as relentless as the Terminators themselves.  You win, Yay!  And out of the wreckage slowly rises the Destructor.  Again.

It would be depressing if it did not touch upon the indomitable nature of the human spirit.  We also keep on getting up, patching our wounds and coming back for another round.

3. The Lord of The Rings

What it seems to be about:  Walking trees, Keebler Elf hobbits.  A whole bunch of Peter Jackson choppy-choppy.

What it is really about: It is simply the most fully realized, elaborate internal fantasy world that has ever been poured out onto the written page and into a film.  Sure Tolkien claimed he was trying to recreate an Anglo Saxon mythos that had been wiped out by the conquering Normans. (With a fair bit of Christianity mixed in).  But I think that was just cover.

J.R.R. Tolkien was simply a highly erudite Walter Mitty.  As somebody who can himself muse on a thought and create an entertaining fantasy world I can but salute the Master.

4. Galaxy Quest

What it seems to be about:  Out of work actors from a cheesy Star Trekesque show becoming fish out of water in a real fantasy.

What it is really about:  Fandom.  The Thermians being the Ultimate, Transcendent Fans, the earth bound "Questerians" their human incarnations.  The Respect that fans have for their object of adoration - and it is not necessary to really believe its truth - and later the Respect that is reciprocated when the fans get are saluted in the final scenes.

5. The Princess Bride

What it seems to be about:  (cue Peter Falk voice) "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...."

What it is really about:  You probably have to read the original book to pick up on this but the author William Goldman has had a very long career as one of the premier screen writers and script doctors in The Business.  If Princess Bride shines a  light on the most lovable, magical, heroic good guys it is primarily to cast in sharper contrast the vile and corrupt bad guys.  Basically Goldman was unloading on all the slimeballs he had to kow tow to on a regular basis.  A shorter version of his world view comes from this quote:

"Understand this:  all the sleaze you have heard about Hollywood?  All the illiterate scumbags who scuttle down the corridors of power?  They are there, all right, and worse than you can imagine."

I wonder which Power Lunch with a Studio Executive inspired this?
Boy it must have been liberating to write that book!

6. The Usual Suspects.

What it seems to be about:  The world we perceive is an elaborately staged deception.

What it is actually about:    The world we perceive is an elaborately staged deception.

7.  Field of Dreams

This one is pretty straightforward.  It is about Faith.  If you believe enough in something it will come true.  In another, earlier era Ray Kinsella would clearly have joined Joan of Arc at the stake for hearing those peculiar, persistent voices.

8. Bull Durham

What is seems to be about:  Like the promo says, "Love and Baseball".

What it is really about: Growing old.  Letting go of youthful dreams in favor of a new life.  The cycle of youngsters coming along and veterans stepping aside.  Annie gives up on seducing impressionable rookies while Crash admits he will not get to The Show as a player.  They move on, together.

But of course if years later Crash meets Nuke in a pool hall somewhere the dynamic will be the same as always.  To Crash the youngster will always be young.  And will always be called "Meat".

Deal with it.

Yes, I know that's only eight.  But my last two picks keep changing on me.  Not having a fixed place in my Pantheon of Cinema they will have to go unmentioned.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Lunch Room Robot 2016

You would think a semi retired guy would have few constraints on his schedule but that is actually not the case.  I have done a middle school robotics class in the fall for 15 years and an advanced class in the spring on and off for about seven.  The spring class always bumps up against my playing hooky in May.

But I really wanted to do the class as it is the "farm system" that gives us a pool of high schoolers with  robotics experience.  This has been pretty helpful in our FIRST robotics campaign.

So I said I would do it.  Fortunately I have the assistance of some of my high school kids and it is off to a good start.

I decided that it had been a few years since we did the "Lunch Room Robot" project.  This is a roughly human sized machine that is designed to wander around the cafeteria at noon and interact with humans.  We did it four or five years ago and said interaction could take the form of the right arm extending and pouring M and M candies all over lunch tables.  Or the left arm would spritz water at kids.  It was a popular experiment, maybe more so for those favored with the candy.

I had the idea back then of using milk crates as "modules" so that smaller groups of kids could work on systems without getting into each others way.  The robot got rather heavy so this time around we are using plastic crates instead of the sturdy metal ones.  Here's a few build pix, edited as usual to provide some privacy.

If you are ever crazy enough to try and do a program like this I can tell you that the key is not money. It is work and storage space.  I like to spread things out.  Batteries, multimeter, switches, tools.  All lined up for the kids building the electronic control boards that will operate the upper and lower halves of the robot.

It is good to work with smart kids.  That applies to both my students and my student helpers.  I tend to quiz the middle schoolers pretty closely...."are you SURE that is the proper terminal to hook up to?" I really like it when a kid is confident enough to say yes when I am trying to make him question the answer.  Note above that I had supplied some nice new wheels.  The kids found a better way to use some old beat up wheels from a long forgotten project.

It is fun to revisit an old project, to try and do it better the second time around.  But it is rather slow going this time.  Maybe the distractions of FIRST have taken my attention off of things.  Maybe some of the components are getting old and beat up.  You can only ask so much from fifteen year old Barby Jeep parts I suppose.

But the kids are learning things and the work goes on.  We have at least one very promising recruit for the high school crew next year.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Starting a Rookie Team

(note: this post will be of very little interest to the general audience.  But, if you are contemplating starting a FIRST robotics team this should be gold)

Things we learned in our Rookie Year.  I am starting this 1/3 of the way through the build season and with no idea how things will turn out.  I promise, no editing of my thoughts post facto, I will simply add bits as we go.


Interest level at our school was greater than expected and with a decided shift towards the younger end of the age spectrum.  Having lots of freshpersons and sophomores bodes well for teams in the next few years.

Getting the word out early helps.  But some kids will just have other things they have to do. Swim team cost us several top notch recruits.

A significant percentage of emails and phone numbers that are scribbled during info meetings will turn out to be rubbish, usually after you have been trying to communicate via same for many weeks. Next time we get kid and parental contact information down solid from the start.

I think if we bring this year's robot along to next years early info sessions and let kids see/play a bit we will have more prospective team members than we can handle.

Early build Season

Many, probably most teams have the acumen to do the entire robot up in computer simulation. We went the more basic route of building individual elements and prototyping some parts in rough materials.  We should transition to a more methodical approach in the future.  My legacy of slapping together robots out of junk on hand has positive and negative effects.  Hopefully we come out of Year One with several kids eager to work more on the CAD/CNC side of things.  It will help us next year. Oh, yes, and that is the sort of thing FIRST is designed to encourage and teach.

Our ability to mock up the playing field considerably exceeded my expectations.

Initiative is great on the physical building side.  Not always so much with the software end of things.

The degree to which most teams build out of pre made parts also exceeded my expectation, but in this sense in a negative way.  It is like finding out that all the 5 star chefs in town secretly concoct their best stuff using cans of Campbell's Soup.  Or maybe that is the 3 and 4 star chefs. We have not been to competition yet, perhaps the elite teams fab many things.  That's where we hope to be in a few years.

While prototyping your build on a computer is an excellent and real world way to do things our team by temperament and austerity just started building mock ups out of scrap wood.  Kids really like power screwdrivers and dry wall screws.  Occasionally an expensive part shows less fondness for this method of construction.......

I fretted for days over the moment when we would make the irrevocable cuts in the frame.  No turning back.  For all the dithering that goes on at various points during the build the crew dismantled the "Proof of Concept" machine with gleeful efficiency.

Building the final machine

The kit that rookie teams get from FIRST does a superb job with the electronics and the basic drive system.  It is ok on the pneumatics, although one key piece either was left out or a kid lost it.  But for building a frame, ick.  You get a couple random bits of aluminum tube.  And you have to try and build on the drive base which has awkward angles and hard to get at places. After much irritation we opted for a short cut and used a conduit bender to make most of the frame out of heavy gauge EMT pipe.

We really should have worked harder to recruit a welder.  In general the "shop kids" are not that into extracurricular activities.  Next year we will have to change that a bit.

Actually, when you start asking a few kids what they can do you will turn up a couple who have had a semester of welding.  Oh, they are not artists by any stretch.  But it is better to have rough looking sturdy work done by a team member as opposed to elegant, well finished work that is done by either an adult coach or by sending it off to a shop to be worked on.

I thought I had a handle on the behaviour of high school students.  Just take the level of silly you see in middle school and reduce it by 10 or 20 percent.  Nope.  We have students from four different grade levels and what you can expect from an 18 year old is different than from a 13 year old.  Also, within and across age cohorts you will see a Bell Curve.  Some students, on some days, will surprise you with maturity beyond their years.  Others with, well to be frank, stupidity that surprises you.

I say this not as criticism especially as I was once young and intermittently wise and stupid. Also I know we have them at the tail end of a long school day or on a Saturday when they would usually be sleeping in.  The burden is on us as coaches to watch more closely than I would have thought.  Keep 'em busy.  Keep 'em where you can see them.

With a simplistic design we did not come close to the weight limit.

We effectively finished mechanical work with one week to spare.  This is one of the virtues of robust-n-simplistic.  Time to turn it over to the drivers and software team.  The mechanics get to fab spares, organize tools and stand by to fix things that break.  I had a couple of less robust components that concerned me.....

Home Stretch

Ah, about that less robust component thing.  Yep, had something crucial break with 9 days of build season left.  Enough time, but no extra, to go with another option.

Build fatigue set in hard during week five.  Quality of effort and results declined.  On the other hand, when the robot was running it did some amazing stuff, and the team was very enthused.

Oddly the kids who seemed to need the most stern looks and words are also the ones who are most keen on pressing on to competition.  I guess students do FIRST for all manner of reasons. Some like lines of code, others metal sparks and shavings.  Some like the social aspects of it all.

Practice Event

Interesting experience.  I was mentally prepared for us to be woefully unprepared greenhorns. But when we got to the event it was clear that our robot was ready to go out and compete.  Most of the others looked to be a week or so from completion.  This of course was three days before the "stop work" date.  There were also some entirely unnecessary radio control issues that would have been avoided with better instructions.

I was hoping for event equivalent area parts.  Instead they were wood mock ups just a little better than what we had been practicing on.

Our robot design was more robust than almost everyone else there.  That's good, we had no repairs of note to undertake.  Of course one of our less experienced drivers hit the wall once at speed.  We are lucky he did not go straight through it.

I don't mean to sound critical.  I know that running an event like this is very, very hard work. We learned some useful things.  Its just that when I run my little event back home I always start on time and keep my staff of minions aggressively on top of things.  I got the impression that for many teams this was just another Saturday build session with a bit of social atmosphere.

The In Between Weeks

When we started out the FIRST campaign we just assumed it would be best to compete at the closest event.  As it turned out that was also the event that had the longest time lapse between the "bag and tag" day where the robot went into enforced storage and the actual moment it would come out and compete.  I went to work as a volunteer at another area event and got a good look at the reality of trying to succeed with the challenge parameters.  From this experience and from watching videos clips of other events, I came to the conclusion that we had in fact been "too dumb to outsmart ourselves". A simple, sturdy machine driven by a team that had a narrow focus on which points to go for could do well.  Of course as of this writing I have no idea how focused our drivers will be, how efficient our pit crew will be, or of what additional tricks other teams can concoct with the extra time. (It is acceptable to keep up to 30 pounds of components out to work on them, and of course additional programming and strategy is fair game too.)

It is very odd to spend six weeks working frantically only to spend another six doing nothing while you wait to compete.

We actually only got the team together twice in the "in between time". Once to watch video from early tournaments and once to get organized for ours.

The Tournament

I have already said a lot this week about how our tournament went.  Surprisingly very well. Sticking to my theme of practical advice I only have a few things to add.

Man, was I right about the virtues of "simple and robust".  It can get you into the finals.  But it won't win them.

It does make sense, even as rookies, to have a scouting team and a lot of stats.  You might scoff at the notion that a bunch of newbies would become Alliance Captains and need to pick partners.  But that is exactly what happened to us and it is a darned good thing we were ready. Plus it is good practice for years ahead.  In this regard having our only Senior take on the task was silly, but if you have a willing volunteer and their interests are Theater, Math and go with it.

At the tournament you create your own little "culture" within a wider community.  Some teams are out there interacting with everyone, others are drawn in and sitting in their pit area.  You get the feeling sometimes that there are established teams that are getting a bit tired, or perhaps having an off year. There are some other teams whose desire to win is fierce.  When it became obvious that we would likely be an Alliance Captain the tone of visitors to our pit changed radically.  Early in the event we would get one or two scouts who would disdainfully glance at our bare bones machine, ask a couple of perfunctory questions, make a tick on their data sheets and move on.  As we hit the home stretch we had larger, much more interested delegations that were frankly campaigning. There were actual leaflets with "Top Ten Reasons to Pick Team ------ as an Alliance Partner".

The culture of our pit was based on efficient work and keeping adults away from the decision making.  It worked really well up to the finals.  At that point we had intense time pressure, too many kids in the pit - mostly from our alliance partners - and some hasty modification work. This is where the "hands off" approach of we coaches back fired.  I could see that what our team was being asked to do was not a good plan, and that there was not enough time to pull it off. But the etiquette was murky...does a rookie team get to call the shots because they are "Captain" or do they defer to two teams with lots of tournament experience and who passionately care about winning?

Ah well.

Hopefully anyone starting up a FIRST team will stumble across this in their search through the wilds of the Internet.  Email me for more, oh so much more, on the practical aspects of pulling off a successful rookie season.

It has been quite a ride and although not free of aggravations it has been totally worth it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Mascot Corner

I can't help it.  I like mascots.  It's not that I would enjoy dancing around in a silly costume.  In fact I am sure I would not.  But they make me happy.  Perhaps I should not look for deeper meanings.

FIRST robotics combines high technology with a bit of the gaudy carnival.  Teams always have shirts and signs.  Some have banners to wave.  A few have their own cheering squads.  Perhaps a quarter have official mascots.

With my team doing well under my cunning strategy of leaving them the heck alone I had ample time to wander here and there looking at things.  The glaring stadium lighting and constant motion did pose some photographic challenges but here's a few pictures that made me smile.

I used to make robot costumes like this for my kids at Halloween.  They are not easy to walk in.

FIRST tournaments all have a "Mascots Corner" where these serious enthusiasts can go crazy.  You should see it when the inter match music is some kind of Polka or "The Macarena".

FIRST is not Battlebots.  The robots are, under strict penalties, not allowed to mix it up.  Mascots, like Jesters since time immemorial, get a bit of latitude. This of course was good natured fun between old friends.

Why did this make me think of a grown up Calvin?  I would like to think that there is enough whimsy in me that I would be able to see Hobbes when others might not.

Even the smaller pit sized plush toys are picturesque.  Here I could at least use the flood lights to show off the frizzy hair on Einstein/Von Frankenstein/Care Bear.

I liked these hats.

You get the most intimate view of things in the quiet moments.  The crowd has moved over to the competition side to watch the finals.  Team 3206, done for the year, has packed up their big fuzzy Husky (?).

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Retro Tech

Our FIRST robotics tournament featured 60 robots.  Approximately 59 of them had a higher degree of technology than ours.  As I mentioned in a previous posting, we finished in 9th place and actually slid up a notch to become one of eight teams who not only made the finals but got to pick the two other "Alliance Members" we would take into the arena with us.

A few pictures of our "retro" robot.

FIRST robots are mostly made of aluminum.  Specifically of aluminum stock that has pre-cut channels in it to make bolting things together easy.  Our robot was made of welded together steel. This was actually quite a novelty to pit visitors.  As a coach/mentor we are supposed to view things from afar, just let the kids run the show.  But as a bemused observer I could not help but notice that visitors peered at the robot, brows slightly furrowed. "What is this strange metal that is not aluminum?".

Here is the robot with the protective bumpers off.  This makes it easier to see.  Note the welded tube steel. Note also the steel pipe that I had the kids bend. (specifically its rigid EMT conduit if you're curious).  The two smaller white wheels on the front are used lawn mower wheels.  In our prototype build phase I just grabbed old stuff from my basement.  They kept on working so we never changed to anything better. The light colored metal plate came from the FIRST supplied "Kit of Parts".  All the darker colored stuff is steel from the scrap bin.  Where it has been welded and cut it was done by the kids. Inspection teams always asked about that, as if not believing that a rookie team has members who can handle a MIG welder and a plasma torch.  I am certain that our machine has as much steel in it as the rest of the competitive field combined.

The cart is also kid built.  The wheels are from Axman surplus and started life on an airport luggage cart. They have had a few other stops on the way to get here.

The pit crew doing their pre-match check of belts and electrical connectors.  The yellow cord is a simple bungee holding the battery in.  The steel loop is from a garden gate.

You will see in this photo some bits of tape stuck here and there.  As a style point I did not allow duct tape in the build process. But the Inspection Team insisted on a few rough edges being covered to avoid cuts and scrapes in situations like the above.  At least I had some on hand in the proper team color.

I have mixed feelings about technology.  At these events I do, usually, keep my sense of humor in check. But with my somewhat Amish looking beard I was tempted to come up to the pit, nod appreciatively and say:

"Ah. Greatly pleased I am, neighbor, to see the Olde Ways being followed".

But I know that while sturdy craftsmanship will never go out of style the future belongs to those who can  change with the times.  Perhaps this very successful machine will be the final stage of evolution for the Junk Bot.  And like the dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous Period, the most impressive beasts came forth thunderously just before extinction.

Monday, April 11, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Riding the Streak

None of our kids knew what to expect at their first FIRST competition.  It is in a Big City and they are small townies.  It is loud and bright and chaotic. Out of 60 teams present we were one of only three rookie teams.  I had woken up at 4 am the morning we left asking myself "What have I gotten myself into?"  Probably a few of the kids had the same thought.

The event filled a college hockey arena with field on one end and pits on the other.

We got there in good shape and a funny thing happened.  We were ready and almost nobody else was. All those little tents and kiosks were full of kids (and too many adults ) frantically drilling, tightening, tweaking.  It took us a little while to navigate the paperwork but before noon on the practice day we were ready.  So we just kept tossing the robot into the arena for one practice match after another.

This was key to our subsequent success.  We found that the controls of the robot had somehow become reversed, so our drivers were actually running it backwards a couple of practice matches.

And they were so darned good they were scoring points and winning practice matches.  Backwards.

When the main competition began our drive team was ferocious.  They were inventing point scoring tricks on the fly and modifying tactics effortlessly when the other teams figured out that these humble rookies were running circles around them.  At one point we had the number two ranking.  One of the matches they won came when the on board camera had been jostled and was pointing at the ceiling. They appear to have navigated by orientation of the rafter beams.

Another key was the pit crew.  A simple robot constructed out of solid materials does not break very often.  But they had the routine down pat right away.  The robot comes back from a match, the batteries get swapped out, tested, secured down, all vulnerable connectors inspected.  The Official Motto of the Pit Crew is on their checklist board.

And the kids who did not have assignment to pit, software or drive teams were also busy.  We had two official photographers.  We had several PR kids who spent the entire event chatting with passersby official and casual.  On their own initiative kids had made flags and an animated robot bird with glowing LED eyes to protectively watch over the pit.

Instead of being embarrassing newbies we found ourselves among the top ranked teams.

The kids took the pressure well.  I on the other hand approached the situation with caution.  A team on a streak has to respect the streak.  Since I did not sit with the team in our first win I had to continue to stay away for all the other matches.  Because the kids were doing fine without us I and my fellow coaches stayed out of the pits unless asked for help, and that was uncommon.  One kid had left his hat behind in my car.  I gave it to him but said, "Don't you dare start wearing it".

Most teams are out after the qualification rounds.  But we ended up at 6-2 and with enough extra ranking points to be one of the top finishers.  This made us one of 8 "Alliance Captains" that get to pick the other two members of their team to take into the finals.  For rookies this is a highly unusual scenario and it was a darned good thing we had discovered a few days earlier that one of our kids loved statistics.  We had him parked in the spectator section for the entire day and a half of qualification matches.  Perhaps his data made a small difference.

When you are the number 8 ranked alliance and have to go up against number 1 it is a little like your tavern softball team going up against the New York Yankees.  Inspirational, sure, but you are probably not going to prevail.

And we did not.

But still a great run and the experience we gained will help us out for years to come.  More robot stuff all week.  Here's a few pictures...

As I always tell the kids, show up on time and with batteries fully charged and you will do well in life.

Saturday, April 9, 2016


In FIRST Robotics coaches are referred to as "Mentors".  The term has acquired wide currency in recent years.  Few perhaps recall that it originates in Homer's Odyssey as the name of Odysseus' old pal who he put in charge of affairs on the home front while he went off to fight the Trojan war.

Mentor in fact did a very poor job.  Grifters took over the household and had a big expensive party. Meanwhile, on the teaching front, what wisdom was actually passed on to Telemachus, son of Odysseus, came when the Goddess Athena borrowed Mentor's physical form for a while.

But Mentors we are I guess, and after the three day slog fest of a Regional Tournament this is how we feel:

I'll have a report when I get a little energy back.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Hardest Working Man in the History of (Sci Fi) Hollywood

Some youngsters of my acquaintance have started a site called "The Renaissance Fan".  It is rather well done and I have a link to it over there on the right side of the page.  It covers fandom of various sorts including sports and films.  The latter topic has gotten me thinking on cinema a little more than usual, sometimes with surprising results.

I got to wondering if there was any solid point of contact between the those two great Sci Fi dynasties, Star Wars and Star Trek.  For instance, did any actor appear in an actual role in both?

After tossing out a few unworthy entrants such as the animated versions I did find one remarkable man whose career covers a half century and virtually everything worth watching in the realm of science fiction and related imaginative fiction.  Here are a few of his roles:

Cousin Itt of the Addams Family

An uncredited role as a "Talosian" in the pilot episode of the original Star Trek.

"Twiki" in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  This was a Star Wars knock off 

A hang gliding Ewok in The Return of the Jedi.
By now you may have detected a pattern.  But to complete the picture lets mention his credits as:
a leprechaun in an episode of Bonanza; as "Baron von Munchkin" on Petticoat Junction, as a "Gorilla Child" in Planet of the Apes, various roles in the original Battle Star Galactica, and stunt work - often doubling for a child who was not allowed to do risky scenes - in an array of movies including ET, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Batman Returns and The Towering Inferno.

Meet Felix Silla.

Born near Rome in 1937 he came to the United States in 1955.  He found work with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus before making the transition to acting and stunt work. Obviously his small stature was his greatest asset in show biz.  He was for instance cast as Cousin Itt after the producer took a brief glance at him, and turned up for work the next day having no idea at all what character he would be playing.

Felix has retired from acting and in recent years has been working the Convention circuit.  Such interviews as I have found suggest that his memory is not what it once was and that his account of exactly what parts he played in some of these movies may be imperfect.

But he did have quite a bit to say about working on Lord of the Rings.  No, not the epic Peter Jackson trilogy but the underfunded and highly flawed Ralph Bakshi animated/live action hybrid.   (As I have made a point of excluding animated versions I must reluctantly deny Felix the trifecta of appearing in all three of the great imaginative fiction series of recent cinema).

I vaguely remember seeing the Bakshi Lord of the Rings back in 1978. I was in college and had the usual distractions so can only recall it as being a mild disappointment.

But looking at the cast I realize that many of the cast members appeared - earlier or later - in movies that I consider my Top Ten List.

John Hurt and Ian Holm would go on to appear in Alien one year later.
Trey Wilson who voiced Aragorn would as his last role play the gravel voiced Skip in Bull Durham.
An uncredited Mel Smith would have a small role as the Albino in Princess Bride.
Anthony Daniels was fresh off playing C3P0 in a little movie called Star Wars.

We think of the movie industry as a huge sprawling entity but when you narrow things down to a certain genre, then to the highly specialized category of midget stunt/acting work you do get down to a handful of individuals.  Not all of whom btw get along with each other.

Demand for his diminutive artistry was great in 1978-79, Silla was for instance working simultaneously on Buck Rogers and Battle Star Galactica.  So he missed out on the chance to add another, albeit dubious, credit to his resume.

Shortly after completion of Lord of the Rings a remarkable bit of cinematic dreck called The Star Wars Holiday Special was made*.  It was so bad that George Lucas has expressed his desire to round up and destroy all of the bootleg copies that seem to be the only surviving versions of it.  Felix, you missed a bit opportunity there but two of your fellow "little people" from Lord of the Rings (Patty Malone and Paul Gale) attained Kitsch Immortality as "Lumpy" and "Itchy", two unkempt Wookie relatives of Chewbacca!
The question of "Why, for the love of God, why?" is subject of much debate among fans.