Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Spring Delayed

So, the plans I announced last Friday to boldly go out in search of the first signs of spring ran into a little setback over the weekend...

It did get better by Monday, when I was at least able to get out for a walk.  And if you know where to look encouraging signs of new growth and optimism can be found.

Posting is going to be a little erratic for a week or so.  It is an odd time of year when I have usually exhausted my stock of pre-written posts and am just gearing up for new adventures.  More on that Friday.  Next week will be Robot Chaos, we'll see how that all winds up.

Monday, February 26, 2018

One Fell Swoop

Sometimes words turn up in such varied contexts that it is hard to see how they got there.  It almost seems as if they are just wandering around drunk and fell asleep in the wrong bed.

Consider:  "In one fell swoop", a phrase that means "all at once".

Also, fell as a mostly English phrase meaning a hilly upland.
And of course, as a past tense of "fall".  

To take them in order.

A Fell Swoop is not just a rapid action but a cruel or vicious one.  It comes from Medieval Latin fello meaning villain.  See also felon of the same source.  As is so often the case with interesting linguistic coinage, Will Shakespeare gets credit, the first use of the phrase coming in Macbeth. 

"Oh, Hell-Kite! All? What, All my pretty Chickens, and their Damme, At one fell swoope? "

A fell as a geographic feature comes from an unrelated Old German source fels meaning rock.  The sound alike feld and related words like feldspar are not, despite their earthy connotations, related.

Fall, as a verb, is from the bubbling stew of Old English and Proto-German. It's meaning of "to drop from a height, fail, decay or die".  With different roots fell can be the past tense of fall or as a verb, the process of making something fall.  To fell a tree for instance.

Swoop is a peculiar word.  The passage above from Macbeth is a very early use and gives us our sense of it being a blow struck.  But it is said to be a "dialectical survival" of the Old English swapan meaning to "sweep, brandish or dash".  It is said to have knocked around in the odd borderlands between Northern England and lowland Scotland, picking up a couple of "o's" in the process by association with the Norse word "sopa", meaning "to sweep".

So, from sweeping the floors up in the country where rugged fells dominate the landscape we get a Shakespearean phrase generalized from a hawk striking to any sudden evil act.

Words are odd things.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The End of Build Season, the Start of Spring?

There are a lot of good things to say about being involved in FIRST robotics.  Among other things it makes winter fly by.  Kickoff is just after New Years.  Bag and Tag is in mid to late February, a time when I am capable of the delusion that spring like weather could happen any day.  I mean, warm spells happen in February.  Usually in odd Weather Bermuda Triangles such as Rapid City South Dakota, but still.

The robotics of course is not "done".  We have a competition coming up soon, and I start the middle school spring robotics class shortly.

But all the kids, all the adults, probably even the robot are a little tired out.  No robot stuff for a few days.  I'm going to be out looking for that first robin, and for those first growing things poking up out of the snow.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Bag and Tag 2018

"Bag and Tag" is the end of the FIRST robot building season, the point at which the machine goes into a sealed and numbered storage bag, not to be touched until tournament play.

Many teams are frantically working up to the last minute, and in their defense, there is always more to do.

But our team philosophy is "Done before Deadlines".  This proved prudent as we lost what would have otherwise been a critical work day to a nasty ice storm earlier in the week.

We of course have a half dozen small things to tweak but practically speaking our ambitions of being ready to start practice matches promptly at the tournament seems feasible.  The lost day of work likely means we won't make the ultimate goal which is to unbag the robot at the event and immediately wave inspectors over for the required pre-event scrutiny.  But we should be close.  In past years we have had to swap over electronics, and a nasty bit of work that can be.  Now we have two complete sets, one just waiting on the robot.

A few pictures from Bag and Tag, it was as planned, mostly a fun night.

Robot playing Jenga

A parade following the bagged robot into the corner of the shop.  For some reason they played taps and all saluted.

Prior to bagging, robot grabs a broom and starts sweeping.

On to competition season....

Monday, February 19, 2018

FIRST Robotics 2018 - Practice, Practice.....

Instead of doing two full on tournaments this year (money was a bit tight) we are going all in for one event.  But to get ready we also did a practice event on Saturday.  These tend to be somewhat improvised, all the arena parts are mocked up in plywood and the last time we did one of these there were a bunch of control system issues.  But as a way to see what you have as a robot - and what other teams you will be facing have - it has merit.

Pictures and thoughts....

Here's our robot - whose semi official name is "Clamps" in its starting configuration.

The fabric covered box has to be put into place on the field.  This requires that there be pneumatic pressure available.  One of the things you can do in a practice event is work on the timing of your pre match long will pre-pressurized tanks stay above minimal limits to be effective?

The matches consist of three robots on each side, or "alliance" trying to accomplish their goals while preventing the activities of the robots from the other end of the field. The robots should be in red and blue color schemes but for a practice event attire is rather casual.

There actually is some science and engineering involved.  Here our software kids work out the equations to tweak our autonomous programming.  Now, if those other clumsy robots would just stay out of our way!

Practice events are valuable for drivers and software but perhaps even more so for the pit crew.  Our first edition of the pit check list....match times, colors for each match, starting positions.  Also a list of things that must be done between each match.  One kid tried to tell me that "Someone else checked that battery!".  Nope, check it again.  It was of course good.

The team and robot were so solid that after a while we just started getting into the "Fill Line" after each match.  As robots drop out due to mechanical issues there are often matches where the required three per side can't be rounded up.  No problem, we were ready.  Ten matches in 7 hours, about as much as a full day and a half official tournament.  Nothing bad broke but we found enough small tweaks to keep us busy for our last two build sessions.  


Friday, February 16, 2018

The Adventures of Lib Man

I've become so accustomed to "branding" in every aspect of my world that the first thing I thought of when I saw this line of cleaning products in the store was "Hmmm, does this suggest some Masked Do-Gooding Liberal Man?  So Liberal that he insists on doing all the household cleaning?  Including the windows?"

The logo is a bit suggestive of this, the little starburst has a rather superhero look to it. And the red color scheme reminded me of the Incredibles.  I think Mr. I did a lot of housework.

Ah, but I was just being silly.  This was encountered at the Gigantic Guy Store where only manly products are sold.  And in my personal experience any connection between political affiliation and amount of guy-housework undertaken is conjectural.

Libman was simply the name of the founder of this century old company based in the Chicago area.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Forgotten Brewery Caves - The Sanborn Evidence

There are different ways to research the matter of Forgotten Brewery Caves.  If you are lucky enough to find mention in a local history book, great.  Another good source can be archived collections of newspapers that can be scanned for key words such as "brewery cave".  I'll probably discuss the foibles of that approach another day.  

To a certain extent it will always come down to standing on a site, looking it over and saying "Yep, that's where it has to be".  But what if there is absolutely nothing to be seen?  Well, that is where Sanborn maps can help out.  Sometimes.

Sanborn maps are a great source for historical researchers.  They were compiled in exquisite, artistic detail by the fire insurance firm of the same name.  Their main interest of course is locating flammable things.  And in this respect they are a mixed blessing.  Breweries were very, very flammable things, so they often got their own detailed map.  Caves are just about the definition of non flammable so they were often left off.   

Today lets have a look at some maps.  What they can show you.  What they can't. Or don't.

Menomonie Wisconsin.  I've marched up and down this hillside a dozen times.  Nothing, unless you count a lone drainage pipe sticking out of the hillside.  But.....

If you can squint enough to read the fine print it says: "Steam Pump in Beer Cellar 50' below Brewery in Bed of Rock".  I imagine that it was the presence of the pump, necessary for water supply in the event of a fire, that got the cellar mentioned.

From Dubuque Iowa is a view of the Glab Brewery.  

This is the place where  the trusty guard dog "Punch" was buried next to the cave.  The notation says No Watchman.  Well, with Punch's spirit guarding things one would hardly be needed.  Note that the Beer Cellar has a board roof, something I have never seen, and given the rock structure of the area, something that would hardly be expected.

Now here is an example of what is not shown.  This is the Argall Brewery in Mineral Point, a continuation of the first brewery in Wisconsin.  There is a cave there. I've seen it!  But, and this is quite common, it is not shown.  But a helpful clue, often the ice house is either above or adjacent to the cave site.

Whether or not brewery caves are shown appears to be very hit and miss, perhaps depending on the inclination of the surveyor.  Here are two images from Hudson Wisconsin from the 1884 map.

This one shows the "Casanova" caves in fabulous detail.

And this one is from the other brewery in town, on a site I have looked over twice and with considerable effort.  Although it clearly shows "BEER CAVE" I can at this late date see no sign of it.  Occasionally destruction efforts were comprehensive even in caves like this which were chiseled into solid rock.

If you want to do you own research on brewery caves, or anything else, your tax dollars have in this instance been put to excellent use.  HERE  is a link to the appropriate section of the National Archives.  Happy hunting, free of cockleburrs and mud!

Monday, February 12, 2018

FIRST Robotics 2018 - Report Six

In some ways Week Five has always been the toughest.  Fatigue has set in.  There is no time to take on major new initiatives.  The robot has to be shared between builders and coders, with neither side being entirely happy with their access.

And the panic that usually kicks in just before deadline is only starting to creep in around the edges....

Again for a bit of variety in my reports, this week we'll do a day by day.

Monday (Build session countdown: 11 to completion)

We have the wooden parts of the bumpers made and fitted.  Also an accordion system for wire and pneumatic tube management.  Modest driving practice.  Claw is still off being worked on.

I went in early to get things organized for the after school session.  With 20 kids working on six different projects a pretty big mess is generated.  It gets hard to find specific tools and materials when needed.

In many ways this was the classic week Five day.  Restless kids, more goofing around than usual.  Work done slowly and not all that well.  One critical part basically ruined by careless machining.  But the last half hour of the session the robot was fired up and performed flawlessly.  Great driving, great programming.   

Robot running in autonomous mode

Wednesday Modest progress on our last three issues.  Took no photos.  Best part of the night was 45 minutes of driving practice.  We had our first big crash when the robot went over backwards.  No damage done, which is a tribute to the basic strength of the machine.  It looks as if driver skill is going to be key with this top heavy beastie.

Thursday.  Dialed down a notch.  We still have three or four engineering problems to solve and they look solveable.  Plenty of time for programmers to do their thing.  Robot still drives smooth.  We did hear a "plink" from a bolt dropping out.  A survey showed other loose ones.  Now if only somebody had not lost that little tube of loctite!  

Saturday.  Light crew due to Science Olympiad.  We got done what we could.  Minor things tweaked into better shape.  And two larger projects.  The "end game" involves putting a hook on a high bar and lifting the robot.  We figured to have a detachable hook going to a winch.  Here is the mounting arm for the hook...

Looks a bit wimpy.  And was.  Just putting it onto the bar and dropping the elevator to pull loose the velco holding it on was enough to bend the aluminum arm before hook release.  It was redone in redoubtable steel.  The other project is a "stretch goal".  Perhaps more on that tomorrow.

Sunday.  Back to more like the usual crew, a dozen or so hard working team members. Lots got done. We are a couple of days from a fully competition ready machine, and most of what remains is just mounting systems that have been completed.

One of which is....interesting.  Because our elevator is so heavy it drifts down when the power is turned off.  Oh, you can get by with just continuing to apply power to the motor, but that is not good for battery life or for the motor.  The answer is some kind of pneumatic brake.

One of our students designed, machined and assembled such a device.  Here he, and it, are.

Clever work, it uses parts we had on hand and should save us some battery power.  Plus its just cool.

The build season winds down and the competition season looms.

Friday, February 9, 2018

As if the Wooden Shoes were not odd enough....

From time to time we haul a bunch of stuff down to the on line auction place and try to get rid of it.  This is a modestly successful strategy for "stuff reduction", one that works so long as you don't at the same time buy other people's things. 

While we were dropping stuff off something caught the eye of my Better Half.  She wanted a picture to send to a dear friend of hers, a woman for whom the saying "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much" is a code to live by.  Mayhaps she needs a set of ceramic Dutchies smooching.  As if she does not in all probability have a phalanx of these in her garden already.

But I Comply.  And in my close up noticed something odd...

Little Dutch Boy is wearing more eye shadow than Little Dutch Girl!  Or in these silly times are we still allowed to notice such things?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

More Exploding Pop Bottles ! - Alb Nunke, Chippewa Falls, Wis.

It is reasonable to assume that Albert Nunke learned everything he knew about the soda pop business from Matt Johannes.  I see young Albert as a promising young employee, one so favored that when he started to make eyes at the boss's daughter that the match was deemed suitable.  

At about the time that Johannes was exiting the soda pop business Nunke married Miss Johannes, moved to nearby Chippewa Falls and started his own bottling works.  Likely he used machinery from the Johannes plant.  There was certainly a bit of overlap, Johannes was still in business past 1885, while a mention of Nunke putting new and improved machinery into his plant appears in 1884.

Some of Nunke's bottles evidently exploded too, but he can't really be blamed for that.  More in a bit.

Albert Nunke was born in Prussia in 1853, immigrating to the US in 1867.  In 1874 he joined the Army and was sent west to duty on the frontier.  His obituary suggests he was involved in several Indian skirmishes and served for a time under "Buffalo Bill" Cody before being discharged in 1879.  This last bit appears to not fit, Mr. Cody having ended his military career and become a buckskin clad showman by late 1872.

That would still give young Albert enough time to move to the Chippewa Valley, learn the soda trade and win the heart of Elizabeth Johannes.  

Frankly his life after that seems pretty boring.  He was a city councilman and the surviving documentation of his life involves a lot of voting on resolutions and inspecting city water pipes.

It is known that Nunke sold the business to a man from Iowa named Kleis around 1914. Albert died in 1920 and his soda works burned down sometime in that decade.  His wife lived on until 1943.  An old patient of mine remembers her as a very stern woman indeed.

Oh, and the exploding bottles.  Well we must once again assume that if an area has only one dominant bottler that any untoward events involving bottles must be with that company's product.  So, consider this item reported in the Chippewa Falls Herald of October 20, 1893.

"Complaint is made that the fish in the lakes in Chippewa County are being killed unlawfully.  The plan used is a new one to this section and shows how much thought and ingenuity is expended in efforts to evade the law.  No dynamite or giant powder is used.  Unslaked lime is thrown into the fish hole and the gasses generated smother the fish.  Another plan is to put lime in a pop-bottle, and a little water, wire a cork in tightly and throw the bottle among the fish.  The resulting explosion is almost as loud as giant powder and fully as fatal."

This is a Nunke bottle of the appropriate vintage.  As this is a quart size an even more impressive detonation could be expected.

Monday, February 5, 2018

FIRST Robotics 2018 - Report Five

Just for fun I am doing this post a little differently.  

On Monday I'll put down what I hope/expect to happen during this very critical week. Then on Sunday night I'll compare it to what actually did happen.  This could be interesting in several ways...


Monday, 29 January.  20 work sessions in, 17 until our practice event ( 20 to stop work day ).

We are now at the half way point in build season.  All critical systems have at least passed "proof of concept" stage and most have been improved upon.  But it is still a bunch of unconnected parts.

My hopes for the week.

Final frame, sufficient to support the mast and to mount everything in place.

Practical mounting platform for the Bear Claw, built and installed.

Uptake spool for elevator winch created, tested, works.

At least a preliminary plan for fitting everything inside the robot.  We need Winch 1 and 2, electronics, air compressor, at least two air tanks, battery.

Give software a chance to drive a few days with a more or less competition robot to see if it is stable.  I understand they are going to adjust the robot's ability to accelerate/decelerate automatically depending on how high the elevator is up off the floor.  That's pretty impressive programming.

Finish robot cart and build a target for our "high goal".

Bumpers constructed with easy install system.

The insider's view at mid week:  23 sessions done/14 to practice event

End of day Sunday.  10 (maybe 11) sessions until our practice event.  15 to bag and tag.  My photos are a mix of Saturday and Sunday shots, we made enough progress that some systems are being taken down for rebuild/improvement.

My list: 

Frame is done.  Just need to get that back ordered winch and drop it on somehow.

Bear Claw works so well that we are reluctant to upgrade it, but there is one part made of polycarbonate that would be better in aluminum.  The original part goes in the back up spares.

Uptake spool works great.  Need to shore up its attachment point as a slipped cable means a failed match.  Software will program a smooth start to the winch to avoid sudden jerky motion.

Everything fits, but obviously we have a big bowl of wiring spaghetti.  A team is working on compact, easy to work around control boards.

Cart done and looks great.  Bumpers are an ongoing project.  We have had an ever changing work crew and some warped plywood to contend with.

The only failure for the week was making a "high goal" target.  The donated materials we were working with had some odd connectors that used up time and lead nowhere. But if you know you can hoist that box to the required height, is it crucial to prove it...I mean, we have a tape measure!

We have a 120 pound weight limit.  We had been driving around with an extra five pounds of "mast" on top, partly to see if it would handle at all reasonably being top heavy.  It was actually not too bad.  So time for some robot surgery, cutting it down to the required 55 inch starting configuration.  Surgeons need to be careful and confident.  The sharp eyed might notice the sleeve of my coat in this picture.  We always cover electronics carefully when sparks and shavings are flying.  My coat was just handy. Weight looks like it will come in around 110.

After a superb Saturday session Sunday was a bit of a let down.  Oh, things got done but only small, necessary things.  The Claw was rebuilt in heavier metal.  The aluminum mounting plate was started.  The cable attachment to the winch was improved. A cable management system was tried and failed.  We did give the robot back to the software folks and for unclear reasons something that worked the day before now chose not to.  Mechanical issues are so much more straightforward.

But we are on track.  In fact a rather clever new mechanism is being worked on. Since our elevator is powered drive up and passive drift down it really should have a means of locking in place when we want to stay at a certain height.  Such a device is now under development....

So a good week.  Ahead lies the dreaded Week Five when everyone is getting tired of robots.  Progress is likely to slow.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Exploding Pop Bottles - Matt Johannes, Eau Claire Part II

Today a discussion of the misadventures of Matt Johannes's soda pop bottles.  I mean, if he indeed sold all the soda in Eau Claire Wisconsin between roughly 1865 and the early 1880s, then any pop bottle that caused a problem in that time was one of his!

Because the beverage is carbonated, soda bottles have thick walls.  They also need a secure, solid seal, and this technology was changing rapidly in the 19th century.

The first bottles used by Matt Johannes were no doubt "blob top" sodas.  This one is a bit later but they were the only game in town in the 1860s.  These sealed with a simple cork, usually held in with either a wire bale or just some string.  This particular style is probably what was being delivered in 1879 when Johannes received "14,400 new pop bottles.......which is only an addition to the immense number he had already on hand."*

Next up was the so called "Gravitating stopper" soda.  This had a glass plunger and a rubber gasket.  You pushed down on it, dropping the plunger, and likely assorted dust and stuff, down into your beverage. Invented in the late 1860s they were somewhat common in the 1870s.

Finally in the early 1880s the "Hutchinson" soda came along and took over the market. Yes, this is from a different, later Eau Claire bottler but the ones used by Johannes are simply embossed on the base:


Note the wire bale in the bottom of this one.  It had a rubber gasket in it but one that could be pushed only part way into the bottle.  More sanitary.  Possibly resealable.  Sometimes it fell in anyway.  Presumably this type were the "self sealing bottles" that Johannes purchased in such a large batch in 1885.**

The poor fellow in this July 1878 news article would have been holding either a blob soda or a gravitator from Matt Johannes:

"M. Homs, proprietor of the Union Saloon, on the North side, was severely injured by the explosion of a pop bottle Wednesday evening, a piece of the glass striking him between the eyes and making an ugly gash from with the blood flowed profusely.  Pop is an innocent beverage but it is sometimes dangerous to those handling it."

A similar report involving a Mr. T.M. Jacobson says that while he was "drawing a cork from a pop bottle" he sustained a deep gash that will "..prevent Mr. Jacobson from use of the hand for a time."

Those stories had injury, but the next one perhaps just insult.  It dates to January of 1881, a time in which either old stock of blob and gravitator bottles or less convincingly the new fangled Hutchinson sodas could have been at fault...


     "There is no place up north where the people are more excitable, and more easily thrown into a panic than at Eau Claire.  For years they have lived an exciting life.  They have had the Dells light, freshlets, and a booming business, fires and revivals, until people are expecting all the time that something is going to happen.  On New Years Eve there was a dance at the Opera House, and the bright gas shown o'er fair women and brave men, and over two hundred hearts beat happy.  They had a bar at one end of the room, where innocent drinks such as pop and small beer were sold.  There was a man named Schilling who was the caterer and it was his job to furnish the refreshments.  About nine o'clock, when the dancers were just getting warmed up, the pop run out, and he went downstairs after another box of the beverage.  He had handled pop for years, and had never met with any accident, and he had become careless and inured to danger.  As he reached the top stair with the bottles before him, one of the bottles exploded, and the cork struck him on the underside of his nose.  "Kritz Dunnerwetter" said he in French, and he dropped the box on the stairs, took his nose in both hands, and as another bottle exploded and struck him in the stomach he fell over backward and rolled down the stairs, the bottles following him fizzing soda water up his trouser legs, down his neck, and all around, and a bottle exploding on every stair and sending consternation amongst his vitals.  He got to the bottom of the stairs a little ahead of the box, and yelled "murder", "fire" and a few such things, then ran up the stairs into the hall, bleeding from every pore. The dancers heard the explosions and  women fainted, while others clung tight to their partners for protection, and one girl opened a window and tried to climb down the lighting rod.  When Schilling came in covered with blood, the terror was intensified until he explained that the soda water was at the bottom of it."

Unfortunately for my little tale, this article seems to have been written entirely tongue in cheek, but the hazards of exploding bottles were real, and well known enough to make a yarn that convinced me to the very end.
*Was 14,400 the standard order size?  It would be 1,200 dozen.  Could that mention of a massive 144,000 order a few years later have been a typo?

**  Note that this bottle has a wire fastener of the "Hutchinson" style in it.  Older bottle types were often retrofitted and kept in service.