Monday, December 31, 2018

(Now) We Don't Need No Steenkin' Badges

Odds and ends found while looking in drawers for something else entirely.

1. You need a permit and an identity card to go mudlarking on the banks of the River Thames in London.  It sounded like fun so when my brother and I were over in 2010 we did all the necessary paperwork.  And then somehow it got left back in the States!  It had to be sent to our lodgings, a very rustic back packers hostel/pub on the edge of nowhere.

The picture has faded with age.  I also have to some extent.

2. Eight years later.  This was my first time back to school in retirement.  Helpful hint, don't wear a white shirt when you will have an ID photo taken.  I look like a floating disembodied head.  I did enjoy my time as a Tech School student.  At orientation I could tell that people were looking for the 18 year old kid that I should have in tow somewhere.

3. Working ER is fun but slowly drives you mad.  Strange hours, strange people, a growing sense of the world falling apart.  In the early morning hours when you have to be awake there is always stern black coffee.  And for some reason there was always chocolate pudding cups.  Also a drawer full of stickers for the kiddies.  At various times my ID badge had Spider Man and Barbie on it.  I think the occasional young patient believed my claim to be the former as I was suturing them up.  It helped that I used a sterile marker to draw "webs" on the back of my gloves....

Friday, December 28, 2018

The World's Largest Cement Otter Speaks His Mind

Of course it had to wait until after the holidays but the unpleasant little tale of Claas Relotius deserves a few comments before it fades entirely from memory.  My  friend Otto - seen below - will do most of the talking but a bit of introduction is necessary.

Otto is the World's Largest Cement Otter.  He is hunched proudly in a municipal park in Fergus Falls Minnesota.  He's been there since the 1970s when local high school students built him out of cement and steel.  He is but one example of the local fad for Big Cement Critters.  I think he is the most artistically successful one although I will of course always have a warm spot in my heart for Big Tom, the World's Largest Turkey.

Claas Relotius is an award winning German journalist.  He's written many compelling articles often coming up with dramatic details that nobody else dares to report.  His bosses at Der Spiegel, in an attempt to explain the victory of Donald Trump, sent him off to spend three weeks in Fergus Falls, considered to be a typical American community.  The dispatch he posted was called "In a Small Town", and it was not flattering.

Fergus Falls was described as being in a literal and presumably metaphorical dark forest, where they "..pray for Donald Trump on Sunday", where anti-Mexican sentiments are seen on yard signs, where the City Administrator carries a gun, has never seen the ocean and is waiting for marriage to lose his virginity.  The landscape is dominated by a steam belching, coal fired power plant with six great chimneys.  The local cinema has been showing American Sniper for two years.

The deal is, Claas made almost all of this up.  

Although I live in Wisconsin now my family roots are from up that way.  I know Fergus Falls and communities like it.  Of course they are not perfect and would not claim to be.  But political opinions are diverse and freely expressed.  In fact there is a strain of "Prairie Populism" that tilts towards the Progressive end of the spectrum even in a place that to be fair did mostly vote for Trump.  A detailed evisceration of the Relotius article written by a couple of liberal denizens of Fergus Falls can be found  HERE.

Nobody is shedding tears for Relotius, who has been fired, discredited, forced to give back his numerous awards.  All his previous work has been belatedly scrutinized and found in many cases to contain additional sensational, politically charged.....lies.

I figure the most appropriate punishment at this point would be to simply send him back to Fergus Falls.  I picture him sitting on a park bench.  It's chilly and the wind is whipping in off the treeless expanses around him.   But he finds one sympathetic citizen....

"Well Claas, I bet you wish there really were some trees."

"Mein Gott, have I had so much to drink that I now can hear you speaking?"

"So it would seem.  But then you always were a good listener.  The problems came when you ignored what you heard and just made things up."

"Ja.  But does not everyone do so?  There is your expression...Go Large or to the house...."

"Geh gross sondern, nach Hause comes closer to the correct sentiment."

"You can speak German?"

"Of course.  As the Spirit Animal of Fergus Falls, and one created by our young people, I know all that they do. Had you heard that a group of them are just back from a trip to Spain and France?  And that a group of Chinese educators was recently in town?"

"I lied about so much.  And for a little bit of fame and for a few pats on the back by my political friends.  Can I ever be forgiven?"

"I think so Claas.  Because you accidentally told a few important truths.  Any community that will pray for Donald Trump - who they know to be so badly flawed - will do the same for you. "

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Weird and Merry Christmas 2018

A good Christmas gathering.  Our family is growing and the average age has dropped a bit with another grandchild and as a bonus, a pre-Christmas engagement.  With the younger spirits, and all the kids old enough to enjoy other kinds of spirits, Christmas has gotten to be more fun.  Also stranger...

The traditional cookies and milk left out for Santa.  The green critter is a poorly executed T. Rex.

On the other hand I am rather proud of this "Poison Arrow Frog" cookie.

It is a longstanding tradition that our family puts up a tacky Christmas diorama in the neighbor's side yard.  This year's theme was "Christmas in a tough part of town."

You park your Barbie Jeep in the wrong neighborhood and who knows what might happen to it!

Evidently Santa runs a "chop shop" on the side....

Dissolute Gnomes hanging out...

That was all done Christmas Eve.  Christmas morning featured the usual family stuff and a new tradition....Mimosas made with champagne after the latter was opened "sabre style"!

A Merry, if mostly saner, Holiday season to all of you.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Tree Shaped Tombstones. Afton Minnesota.

There are few communities from the late 19th and early 20th centuries where "Tree Shaped Tombstones" can't be found.  Oh, in any given town the cemetery may or may not contain them.  Local taste, cemetery association rules, what product line the local undertaker was pushing, sometimes you find them, sometimes not.

A particular category for me are the many small cemeteries that were once on the edge of a village but are now in the tiny old core of a modern suburb.  You go past mile after mile of tract housing with its random serpentine roads and eventually end up in a tiny pocket of older houses and businesses.

Here is the cemetery in Afton, Minnesota.

One odd thing about photographing these monuments is how different they look with different angles of light.  I do sometimes bump the color filter up on the wider shots but still, the difference between that and the close up is striking.

It may also be that the detail view here is on a more weather exposed side.  With this close in focus you can see the structure of the stone, made up as it is of a mass of compact fossilized creatures from eons past.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Culla's Tavern Memories - So Few?

You think of the internet as this great filing cabinet.  A place where all information exists and in multiple versions.  But sometimes this is not so.  The other day I googled "Culla's Tavern".  And I got back exactly two useful links.  

One was the piece I wrote on Cullas back in 2011.

The other was a site, which had a magnificent photo showing Ma Culla at her Yahtzee station, her boyfriend Johnny glowering in the background.  Worth a look.

And that was it.  Other links were to now extinct sports teams that played for the bar, and for a few very poignant things.  The location of a payphone on the premises for instance.  (It was by the way an actual wooden phone booth, way in the back next to the Men's Room where Johnny met his Maker.

Two entries with actual information.  It's not much to remember a special place like Culla's by.

I feel a need to add just a bit to the remembrance of this quirky, irreplaceable tavern.  So here, in its threadbare glory, is quite probably the last surviving jersey from the Culla's Tavern broom ball team, circa 1980.

I remember our starting the broom ball team shortly before "Ma" Culla sold the place.  She seemed only vaguely aware of the sport but said, sure, why not.  I don't know if they supplied the jerseys although it bears the image that was on all Culla's shirts, so I suppose they did.  We just played broom ball and brought our thirsty selves to the bar afterwards.  

It brings back memories.  Danny and his brother Tom played on the team. One went on to be a Professor, the other spent a winter iced in up in the Arctic. I have a distinct - and therefor suspect - memory that Don, one of my med school classmates was on the team.  We probably made up the rest of the roster with members of The Armadillos, our long standing mediocre softball team.  

I've lost track of most of them.  And the other regulars of Culla's have also faded to decades old memories.  Fred, who became a math teacher.  Lyle who dropped out of college and joined the Navy. Little Joe who once attained a measure of lasting Culla's fame for an after hours liaison that was so outrageous that we didn't care how much of it was true....

Ah Culla's.  It deserved a better fate than to be bulldozed for upscale housing.  But that is probably true for the entire neighborhood including the run down house my brother and I lived in.  It was once right off the back door of Culla's.  Now its a parking lot.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Barbie Jeep Robotics - Part Four

We finished up the Ninja Jeep.  Having both classes working  on one machine did enable me to get ahead with respect to having needed parts on hand for each session.

We were fortunate in that the front wheels came off easily.  The space to work with for mounting wheels with gearboxes was very tight....originally these were free spinning wheels without gearboxes.

The method used to lock the front steering was crude but effective....swaddled up with duct tape and cable ties.

And here is the final result.  It runs well and the cool LED underlighting can be toggled on and off.  The horn never worked quite right and anyway it was annoying.

A lot of work hours went into this project which I have to say was not a complete success.  Middle school aged kids are OK when working alone, and can also run around in packs for things like soccer.  But they do not function at all in smaller working groups.  I spent way too much time keeping mischief from happening elsewhere in the classroom and it hamstrung the work on the Jeeps.

Oh well, they seem to have had fun and I suppose a few of them learned a bit....

Running around in a pack.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Inappropriate Songs of my Youth - Part Two

Imagine, a President of the United States who actively encourages Body Shaming for overweight children!  Why, such a scoundrel would probably also cheat on his wife regularly and engage in nepotism, hiring family members for important government jobs.

Indeed.  Oh, no I'm not talking about the annoying guy with the orange hair.  No, this was John F. Kennedy.

Perhaps the beginnings of childhood obesity were noted even then.  Now, JFK didn't invent the National Council on Physical Fitness but he did change the name to The President's Council on Physical Fitness, and as part of the new emphasis adopted as its theme song a remarkable bit of songwriting that will instantly resonate with everyone over the age of, oh mid 50's.

"Chicken Fat".  Also known as "The Youth Fitness Song".  I picked this YouTube version because of the image.  That is exactly the style of clunky, drab record player that was wheeled into the little gym at Lowell Elementary school.  We were all lined up and expected to jump, twist, bend, etc.  How else will you attain the cheerful end result, which was:  "Go you chickenfat, go away, go you chickenfat go!"

If you are really sharp you might recognize the name Robert Preston, or the jaunty up beat style of the music.  Preston of course was the titular character in the 1962 movie The Music Man.  The song in fact was recorded at the same time, and in the same studio as the sound track to the movie!  Meredith Wilson, the composer who wrote the songs for the initial Broadway version and adapted it for the screen, also wrote "Chicken Fat".  Preston was totally in character, and his performance in "Chickenfat" is similar to his expansive, over the top style in such songs as "Trouble in River City" and "Seventy Six Trombones".

Obviously the above is a still from the movie.  Now I don't know if he was in costume as well as in character when he recorded Chicken Fat but I'd like to thinks so.  Oddly the school gymnasium (?) in this picture looks an awful lot like Lowell Elementary school's.  I figure he's just getting warmed up.  Another stanza or two and at least those sluggish looking kids will be hopping about.  Maybe grandma will be shakin' that hoop skirt too!

Millions of copies of the 33rpm, 7 inch record were distributed to schools across the nation.  The original stereophonic master copy seems to be a Lost Masterpiece and all existing versions today are in the same glorious, tinny, magnificently enthusiastic mono that got us jumping and bending in place circa 1964!

Just for fun I left the "Chicken Fat" song play for a while while I moved on to doing homework.  Yikes!  I had forgotten just how compelling, nay commanding, this bit of fitness propaganda really was!  I found myself bobbing back and forth and my keyboard tapping acquired a certain jaunty cadence!

"Once more on the rise, next to the flabby guys, go you chicken fat go away! Go you chicken fat go..."

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Inappropriate Songs of my Younger Days Part One

I read recently that the references in "Ring around the Rosy" - you know, the ones supposedly related to the Black Death of medieval times - are in fact, not.  I did not dig deep into the scholarly discussion because frankly I want it to be wrong.  I just like the idea of ideas being passed along for centuries in the lyrical version of children's songs.

It did get me to thinking about a few songs from my own childhood.  Ones that dealt with difficult concepts, things that would be highly inappropriate for children in these cossetted, PC times.  A few examples.

1. "Oh it was sad. So sad.  It was sad when that great ship went down. (to the bottom of the...) Uncles and Aunts, little children lost their pants, it was sad when the Great Ship went down...."

We used to sing this when I was small, and you still hear it once in a while.  It of course references the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  The original version of the song was intended to be taken seriously.  It was being recorded as early as 1913, and exists in assorted versions.  Here's one from a few years before I was born.

2. "We're Uncle Charlie's Boudoir, Marauders in the Night, we're..(redacted!!!!).

This song was sung at the Charles Sommers Wilderness Canoe Base.  It has of course been altered to include Mr. Sommers, but the original version appears to have been sung quite commonly in military training camps here in the U.S. during WWII.  I recently re-watched part of Band of Brothers where they sang something very similar while running up the mountain during paratrooper training.  All versions of this song contain a fair amount of obscenity.

How this got to be sung at a Boy Scout canoe base it is impossible to say.  As scouts we sang lots of, well, camp songs.  This is the only one I can recall that was R-rated. And certainly not something we'd sing when the Scout Master was around.

Charles Sommers was not a WWII vet.  What little information I can find on him indicates that he was Chairman of Region 10 of the Boy Scouts of America since said region was established in 1921. He is said to have been a very "dignified" man.  I don't imagine he'd think much of being remembered - long after his death - as the ribald "Uncle Charlie" involved in this little ditty.

Ah, but I've saved the Worst for Last.  And for next installment.  Shameful gym class memories dredged up!

Monday, December 10, 2018

A Funeral for Mr. Clamps

Our competition robot for last year's FIRST season was designed to zip about grabbing boxes with a pneumatically powered claw, which it then delivered to targets ranging from ground level to seven feet up.  It was a nice design and a lot of fun to watch.

The team named him "Mr. Clamps", a moniker both descriptive and a bit of homage to a minor character from the Futurama cartoon series.  

Francis X. Clampazzo was of course a much less endearing figure!
As the next season is only a few weeks away we find ourselves with a sad but necessary duty.  We have to reuse some of the parts of Mr. Clamps and so he must be taken apart.

Prior to the build team taking wrenches to him we held a brief ceremony.  It went something like this:

"Dearly beloved we are gathered here today to say farewell to a worthy robot.  Mr. Clamps was a happy machine, almost like a big enthusiastic robot dog whose great joy in life was grabbing things and speeding off with them."

"Mr. Clamps brought happiness to so very many carbon based organisms. From the yellow capped judges who marveled at his pneumatic air brake to the dozens of Lego League tykes who only a few days ago got their first chance to drive a big robot."

"Yet even as we celebrate the life of Mr. Clamps we are here today to end it."

"A sad occasion, but shed no tears for Clamps.  For he will live on not only in our memories but in the dismantled components that will be Resurrected in The Robots to Come."

"Made in part from scraps from the recycle bin we now speak over him the traditional words of robot parting".

"Bolts to bolts.  Widgets to Widgets.  From the Dumpster he came and to the Dumpster he returns.  Amen."
A couple of final notes.  

We've had some tough deaths in our community recently.  Our having a little fun celebrating what talented young people can do is not meant in any way to be disrespectful to families that have suffered tragedy.

Also, the afternoon work session was not even half over before the first of Mr. Clamp's recycled parts were put back into service.  The steel support for his elevator shaft is now a much improved handle for our robot transport cart.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Fez and the Legos

Recently I was asked to be the Master of Ceremonies for a FIRST Lego League event. I was given to understand that the primary requirements were a comfort level with middle schoolers, a sufficient energy level, and a silly hat.

I said sure.  In fact I told them that I already owned a bit of headgear I refer to as "The Jeweled Fez of Robotic Supremacy" and that I had worn it while being MC for other robotic events.

FIRST Lego League is a highly organized system and provides a great service for middle school aged students.

Here's the field level view.

And me doing my thing:

Oh, I also wore my tuxedo with tails.  I don't get enough opportunities to do so.

Among my duties of the day I sat down and interviewed most of the two dozen teams in attendance.  A couple of the kids said "I really like your hat".  In return I asked them: "Do you want one?".  I had tossed in a couple of extras from my shamefully large collection of fezes.

Here I am with my Fez Bretheren.

(For the record, I decided at the last minute to not wear the Jeweled Fez.  Rhinestones are a bit much for a daytime event.  The Leopard Fez seemed a more appropriate choice.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Posters in the Halls of Academe - Part Two

I'm going to miss my wanderings through the halls at University.  I kept getting peculiar little insights into things.  Maybe not the insights that were always intended...

This poster obviously was put up before Halloween.  Because this is considered to be such an important matter we all got an email from the Dean of Students that said the same thing.  I'm sympathetic.  For college age students Halloween costumes typically are associated with alcohol consumption and obnoxious behaviour is not unheard of.  Sometimes people just go a little too far.

I also thought the people behind this poster went a little too far with a gratuitous reference to Immigrations and Customs officials and violence.  Political dust ups notwithstanding these are just folks doing their job.  How 'bout we speak out against Guy Fawkes masks and Che Guevera shirts maybe?  Revolutionaries do tend to perpetrate a little violence after all.

The Math Department shares a floor with foreign language classrooms.  This is logical.  The details on this poster made as much sense to me as if they had been written in Portuguese.  

Except of course for the phrase mentioned in the second line.  Boromirian rings I understand, even if they did spell it wrong!

There are a lot of posters with political flavor to be seen.  Sometimes the actual intent is hard to puzzle out.  This is from the Society of Professional Journalists.  Now, some of my conservative friends would say that modern journalists ditched their objectivity long ago, and would opine that many of them would provide spin/cover/excuses for their political pals for free.  Or maybe for table scraps like an obedient lap dog.

But the detail below seems a fairly conservative thought.  Rather a combination of "There ain't no Free Lunch" and the official motto of New Hampshire "Live Free or Die".

And lastly not a poster but a mysterious door.  Room 219.  The Human Laboratory. Perhaps this is where enormously tall basketball players are cloned....

Monday, December 3, 2018

Posters in the Halls of Academe - Part One

Random odd things seen while waiting for German class.  With Weirdness Rating from the perspective of a 61 year old geezer.

This first one is puzzling.  The Wandering Uterus Project seemed to be related to the making of a (movie?) called ALL NIGHT CHECK.  When I tried to google that I instead got THIS  I really have no idea how this link - which seems to be a service that watches show horses at, well, horse shows, relates at all.

Elsewhere I did find a somewhat more helpful link.  HERE The Wandering Uterus Project appears to be a multimedia presentation that is "..designed to redress the recent anti-uterus rhetoric that has entered the public sphere..."  Sure, there are some good ideas in there, but for Weirdness this gets a 6.  (Scale of 10)

Einstein in Scotland.  This is a study abroad opportunity.  The cut off part of the poster mentions that you can "Learn Relativity in Aberdeen".  Pints of ale consumed with people speaking the "Doric" dialog of northern Scotland would be a Relatively Interesting experience.  Where Einstein fits in I know not but this was on a board with other math related stuff.  Nerds in kilts.  Weirdness level 7.  I'd give it more but that might be what it takes for Einstein to make sense.

A study of graffiti in a cathedral.  I don't consider this weird at all.  0. If I'd seen it before the actual event I'd have gone to the lecture.

An All Gender Clothing Swap.  This would be weirder if it were prom dresses and such. But boring, neutral colored sweaters?  I still have to give it a 3 but only because it mentions Transmission Week and that sounds like a sale at the auto parts store.

Ladies, Gentlemen and assorted other denizens of the Internet I think we have a winner.  One display cabinet has shared space between Latin American Studies and Public Health Studies.  The cabinet has not been updated lately.  The Essentials of Public Health book is looking tired and saggy.

And a close up of the lower edge of the book?  Dead Bugs!  Health Inspection Fail.  Weirdness level 9.5!