Monday, December 30, 2019

Of Aardvarks and Algorithms

It's hard to feel anything for Facebook.  They are just omnipresent if not always noticed.  Like nitrogen in our atmosphere.  I don't hold them to any particular ethical standards.  As the old saying goes "If you are not paying for a product you ARE the product".  So naturally they sell whatever information they can get about us to all sorts of advertisers.

But of late I'm getting a bit annoyed with them.  The ads I see are a mixture of products for rickety old people (arthritis medicines being among the least offensive) and for witless young people.  So many online games featuring winsome elves.  Just, so many.

It is all run by algorithms, complicated lines of code that suggest that people who click on subject A might well be willing to purchase product B.  Well, time to toss a few wrenches - spanners to my UK friends - into the works.

So, on the first of each month I am going to enter a random string of "interests" into the system.  Maybe by setting ad preferences, maybe by looking up and clicking on various facebook pages.  I will try to make it things that I have little to no real connection with.  And then see how this impacts the ads that FB sends my way.  To make it more fun each batch of "wrenches" will be grouped by alphabet.  Lets start with then things that /cue Grover voice/ start with The Letter A.

Facebook, please, send me ads relating to:

Albacore Tuna
Amerigo Vespuchi
AAA batteries
Aye-Aye lemurs
AP Calculus

I'll report back in a month, and if the experiment proves interesting I've got the rest of the alphabet to play with.

Then I can move on to the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets to really mess with 'em.


I jumped the gun and threw out aardvark bait a day early.  The first five items I entered as searches on Facebook, the second five on Google.  One of my kids in the tech industry also suggested that I clearly read each line item into the computer's microphone.

So far not much happening, and if I've got the algorithms off balance, great.  Current Facebook ads are something from Paypal wanting to loan me money, exercise equipment which is of course seasonal....and storage shelves.  Hmmmm.  I have been collecting workbenches and shelves for the robotics workshop.  How did they know.

Ah well.  An early toast for the New Year.  "To the Confusion of the Algorithms!"

Friday, December 27, 2019

Christmas 2019

The one day of the year when old dogs get a pass for sleeping on chairs and sofas.

There was the usual Christmas Eve clandestine activity as the younger members of the tribe go next door to the neighbors and construct an elaborate Christmas tableau.  This year the theme was ambitious but the execution so - so.  Warm melty weather is not helpful.

Santa stands on the beach as a twelve foot long "snow shark" pursues assorted elves and gnomes.  "Jaws" as a Christmas movie?

Even the bucket of crimson "elf blood" got washed out an anemic.  Oh well, there's always next year.

And, the freakishly warm weather allowed some front yard construction on Christmas Day.

A brontosaurus - actually according to our four year old expert, a brachiosaurus - stretching its neck seven feet up in the air go grab a few measly leaves off a winter tree branch!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Bills

It's that time of year again.  My taxidermy pal Bill the Squirrel has an abundance of wardrobe options.  This year he's stylin' a knitted wine bottle cover made to resemble a classic Ugly Sweater.  I suspect the Asian textile mill workers who crank this stuff out pause occasionally to wonder what they'd actually be used for.

I don't think they imagined this:

May your days be Merry and Weird.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Long Portage

Seen by the side of the road west of Cable, Wisconsin.  There's no wayside rest and really little reason why anyone would stop to investigate.  By this point people have driven a long way and are almost at their lake cabin.

Heck, even I drove straight by for fifteen years before my curiosity got the better of me.  Was that boulder and cement construction method the sign of a CCC project?

Here's a close up of the bronze plaque which needs a bit of cleaning up to be sharp and legible again.

It reads:


So, this was a portage - a short land bridge between waterways - that could link the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.  Handy if you want to paddle from Duluth to New Orleans.  But who would care about that sort of thing?

Well, trade back and forth between various Native American groups was extensive if mostly done in small amounts of high value items.  A birch bark canoe is not a cargo container ship.  Copper, shells, pipestone and so forth.  Once the Europeans came along things got busier.  Europe wanted furs.  The native peoples wanted metal tools, firearms, and sadly, whiskey.

The portage was used by French traders going back as far as the 1600s.  Jonathan Carver crossed it in 1767.  And an Indian Agent named Henry Schoolcraft, who left us a detailed account of the portage from 1831.  

While looking at various material relating to the portage I found this interesting hand drawn map that is held by the State Historical Society:

As it dates from 1936 I assume it's creator, a certain Robert Hanson, was one of the members of the "Tuesday Club".  And although the detail is not good in this copy it  alludes to markers in the plural, so perhaps there is another one somewhere along the route.  It indicates that they were placed in June of 1936.

As we are dabbling in geocaching these days it seems like a good place to set up a series of points along the portage.  It will be much easier for modern travelers who are not lugging canoes and bundles of beaver furs.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Redneck Winter?

That's the only explanation I can come up with for why the neighbor's garage is sporting a mullet!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Desultory activity by naked men.

Some days are just blah.  Not much exciting going on.  Not much to get excited about frankly.  So one just putters around, going from one task to another without a lot of enthusiasm for any of them.  Just "dialing it in" to use a now dated metaphor.  A slightly older term for this behaviour, listless activity undertaken with indifference, is desultory.  

And it was on just such a Saturday morning a while back that I actually discovered the origins of the word desultory.  It involves naked guys jumping around on galloping horses!

The mosaic pictures below are from the Roman era and depict "desultores".  The term literally means one who "leaps down".  In performances at the Roman circus they would put on quite an acrobatic show leaping on and off running horses.  Sometimes they would have a team of four or six riding abreast and leap from one to another for the amusement of the crowd.

The monochrome mosaics shown above are in the basement of the Palazzo Farnese, a high Renaissance palace that now serves as the French Embassy.  

I'm not certain where this one comes from but at least the horse seems quite a bit less enthusiastic.  He seems to be going about his business in a desultory fashion in our familiar, modern sense of the word!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Vexing Robotics

Our middle school has for the first time started teams in the VEX IQ competition.  It's a little like FIRST but smaller scale.  I'm only peripherally involved in this but since it involves several of our future high school team members I have kept an eye on things.

A couple of their machines ready to test.

Of course they are built from prefab parts.  Basically Lego type components.  So this puts a few limitations on the mechanical designs possible.  And I fear puts some constraints in their thinking that we will have to undo later.  Just as the more free form "Machines Behaving Badly" farm club has some overly wide boundaries that must be reigned in.

Here's the VEX competition.  I'd never seen one before....

Fifty plus teams.  Held in a big gym with the usual execrable florescent light.

The game involved moving plastic balls around and stacking cubes.  Oddly to my eyes it also required the team to switch drivers in mid match.

For your first time in a new program you just don't want to have your robots tip over and start smoking.  The teams did OK, middle of the pack.  But they took it seriously. Even after they were out of contention you'd see the kids continuing to practice with their robots.

I'm happy to report that the teams from our town came up with unusual solutions to the game challenge.  Not in the end the most effective ones, but still.  The judges liked them and one of the teams actually won an award for a "creative engineering solution".  

All in all a good day of robots.  The Farm Club for the high school team is growing some good future talent.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Signs of the Times December 2019

Seen parked outside the high school's tech ed wing.

A manual mill.  Boy that's some sturdy machinery.  I learned on a similar machine and really got to like it.  I suspect fancy new CNC machines are replacing this old soldier. They won't last multiple decades as he did.

Seen in the middle school cafeteria.

I thought the CIA was usually a bit sneakier about things.  But given their recent track record maybe not.  I'm not sure that curly red ribbon was really what they were looking for in raising "Black Funds".  Perhaps it is some sort of incriminating tape!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

How I actually view advanced Technology

With the FIRST robotics season soon upon us it might be well to consult Galaxy Quest, my oracle and guiding light for many things.  As I also am soon to be surrounded by technology that I but dimly understand the important line is:

"Well, it has never been successfully tested...."

Not long now before things that should work blow up in surprising ways....

Monday, December 9, 2019

Snowed In

Up north, with the forecast changed to include ten inches of snow.  Oh well, no place I have to be until Wednesday.

And, as it turns out, we are snowed in WITH the grand children.  So that's good.  

One of them challenged me to do a cart wheel, the first I've likely attempted in 30 years.  I'm still ambulatory, so that's good too.

A TARDIS Brewery in Menomonie Wisconsin?

In my study of brewery caves in Western Wisconsin there are several where I have solid evidence for their existence but for various reasons can't locate them.  Usually this is because they are underneath newer development as communities grow beyond their 19th century boundaries.  But one has bothered me to no end, causing me to make numerous visits.  And each time I come away frustrated and/or puzzled.


It should be easy.  Here is the 1885 plat map that gives exact details.


And if that is not enough for you, There's are descriptions in the Dunn County News. After a fire in 1877 - probably arson - destroyed the original brewery it was rebuilt "..on the brow of the hill just above where the old brewery stood, and directly over the vaults in the solid rock below, and communicating therewith, so that the beer may be carried through pipes from the vats to the cellar"  Further mention is made that the "spacious beer vault" was cut in the rock, was 40 feet below the floor of the brewery's basement, and that the "..main entrance to the vault is at the foot of the bluff near the site of the old brewery."  

A very blurry map from 1877 shows the brewery in its original form.   It would be somewhere near where the yellow "shed" appears in 1885.  Indeed, the shed is probably the entrance/antechamber for the beer vault.  The creek shown on the older map is a handy landmark and is just off the lower edge of the '85 map.

A slightly more detailed sketch is based on an 1874 source not available to me:

So, this should be easy.  There is still a road leading from the north down towards the original brewery site.  Doubtless this is the "wagon road" shown above.  You needed that road.  The beer was not going to go back up through those pipes after all.  With these coordinates in hand it is a simple matter to stand where the road must have taken a turn to go right into the brewery cave:

So that's it.  And the problem?  You can't tell from this perspective but from the road grade, which should be original, to the flat spot up above, is only about 30 feet.  And remember that the descriptions agree that the vault was 50 feet below the brewery. (For this discussion assume that 40 feet below a basement counts as about the same). It just does not work.  The title of my post suggests one possible answer...

But honestly a Dr. Who TARDIS brewery that could be much bigger on the inside than its external dimensions seems an implausible explanation for this dilemma.

Lets take a brief step back to review the history of the brewery.

Christian Fuss apparently started it in 1867.  He had a beer garden down near the river although sources disagree as to which side of the creek it was on.  Annual production of 300 to 400 barrels a year was about average for this time and place.  He appears to have struggled with debt so the allegation of arson associated with the fire in late 1877 could have various interpretations.   After the rebuild business seems to have been good, but Fuss went bankrupt anyway in 1884.  A series of complicated ownership changes, openings and closings followed with the final act being yet another fire that destroyed the brewery in 1891.  Christian Fuss went to work for the other brewery in town.  In 1894 he "..died destitute in a brewery where he had for several years past worked for his board."

So, be prepared to join me in confusion.  Maybe the descriptions of the beer vaults were inaccurate?  I'm not buying it.  Sanborn maps are painstakingly correct and we have essentially the same numbers from the 1878 newspaper articles and the map seven years later.

Maybe the top 20 feet of the hill were simply pushed over the side along with the ruins of the brewery?  I have seen something like this happen a time or two, but a local historian who grew up nearby remembers the ruins of the brewery still being there in the 1930s.  John Russell naturally went looking for the caves, as any lad of the era would have, but never found them.  He was a keen observer of local doings and I'm sure would have mentioned if 20 or 30 feet of the hill had been removed during his younger days.

I have seen one brewery cave that had a decided downward slope from its entrance.  It was in Prairie du Chien.  

But that one was pretty odd.  Also it was well away from any rivers and streams.  You can imagine the problems associated with having a lagering cellar that fills with water during spring floods.  Or even heavy rains.

So I end this trip to the site of the Christian Fuss Rock Brewery as I end all others.  Puzzled and frustrated.  It does not seem as if a TARDIS phenomenon should be up there among the more plausible explanations.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Encountering Resistance

Seasons come and go.  Just as I am finishing my electronics class at the local tech school it seems that the political season is getting warmed up.  The former runs for a semester.  The latter has become continuous.

In Electronics I learned quite a bit about resistors.  I had not known that there were different kinds, each with their own symbol.  Perhaps this will carry over to the political arena.  In each case if you overload the system you get plenty of heat and smoke.

Let's start with a photo resistor.  



Fixed resistors are the most common ones used in electronics.  And while rare, they do exist in the world of politics also.
For many years, and through assorted Presidencies there has been a small group in our town who get together every Saturday morning to protest U.S. foreign policy and militarism. I have stopped by and sipped coffee with them once or twice.  In a past career I've worked with several of these folks, and they're good people.  While respectful they don't cut either party any slack. This of course gets them very little press so I can't find a picture to show you.  You'll have to settle for this image of a more strident outfit who manage to be obnoxious to whoever is in power.  I guess that's something.

If I recited the mnemonic for resistor color codes in their hearing I suspect everyone but the formidable lady on the far right would keel over in a swoon.
Alas, most of what passes for protest these days is instead just a variety of activism.  Whether it is deficit spending, or overseas military involvement, or well most anything, our current political climate encourages people to vigorously condemn actions when done by their opponents even when they extol the virtues of the same actions when done by their own party.  Of course there's an electronics symbol for that too...

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Frisky Times in the Bat Cave

As I have mentioned a time or two, you should not go rummaging around in brewery caves in the winter  time.  At least not in those known or suspected to be safe havens for hibernating bats.  They need their sleep.

Cave hibernating bats you see, have an odd lifestyle.  Stop eating in the fall.  Huddle together in underground spaces all winter.  Sleep. Wake up every now and then to stretch and mate.  Go back to sleep.

It all seems very decadent.  

Researchers tracking the plight of bats in this age of White Nose syndrome have gotten, well rather nosy in their study of bat night life.  (I suppose for bats in a cave all winter, it's always night).  They tag them with fluorescent powder then check later to see how many other bats have the magic dust on them.  Somewhere or other.

One of my "bat friends" sent me this photo of a dusted bat under UV light illumination.  It struck me as resembling pictures I've seen of "Raves" where decadent humanoids gather in underground spaces with glow sticks, loud music and illegal drugs.  Rave Bat manages to have a pretty good time even without these things.

Sleep well my squeaky little pals.  See you in the spring.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Tree Shaped Tombstones - Bloomer Wisconsin

Years ago I visited a cemetery in Bloomer Wisconsin.  Oh it had a few "tree shaped tombstones" but nothing remarkable.  Well, the other day I took a wrong turn going out of the place and ran across another, smaller cemetery.  Catholic in its persuasion, which means you get the distinctive "Christ on the Cross" variations...

There were two nice specimens near each other.  And they make an interesting pairing.

This one is older.  As you can see below Wenzel Recha died ("Gestorben") in 1888.  At that point in time his monument was carved in his native German.  "Ruht in Frieden". Rests in Peace.

And here's a generation later, a man who died in 1909.  English for the tombstone now.

Also of course a German name, and from the early dates of birth it seems likely that these men were both born in the Old Country.  But the old ways fade.

Of course not in my family, I'm told my father still grew up speaking German in the 1920's.  And that of course was after all things Teutonic became a bit unpopular during World War One.

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Squirrel, the Fez and the Robot Overlord

Of course I run the Machines Behaving Badly course just for fun, and to see kids get a start in the world of technology.  I don't accept payment.  But when you are offered a coffee mug that bears your quasi-official title as Robot Overlord one must of course graciously accept.

It might be used for its primary purpose in the future but for now it is up on the shelf alongside Bill the Squirrel and my fez collection.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

FIRST Blizzard

You know the FIRST robotics season is getting close when my snowblower shares garage space with last year's competition robot.  Our team's work space is currently occupied by the Spirit of Christmas, a most excellent organization that helps improve the holiday for those in need.  In that context it is only a minor inconvenience that our robot has to live elsewhere for a month.

Of course when the first (or FIRST?) blizzard of the year slams 8 inches of heavy wet snow down on Wisconsin it's time to shuffle things around and deploy the snowblower. 

A couple of images from what I assume to be only the beginning of a long series of Boreal insults.

Only yesterday I made some wire mesh cages to go around small tasty plants that were already being nibbled by rabbits.  When I dropped these on there was still green grass visible.  Now the poor things look like they are trying to climb out of a missile silo.

But they are doing a damn site better than our front yard Arbor Vitae tree.  This is a grizzled veteran, survivor of many a hard campaign.  Now it kneels in abject surrender before Cruel Elements that will offer it no quarter.

A Quiet House for the Holiday

This is a puzzling picture to look at, and it was none too easy to photograph either.  It is the sticky hand print of a one year old on a mirror.  

It's the sort of small thing you notice when you are going to be on your own for a holiday.   Which is by the way, a good thing.   If I might explain.

Wife and I will be without small people on Thanksgiving this year for, we think, the first time since 1986.  33 years if you are keeping score.

The reasons?  All good.  Gainful employment in The Big City in one case.  But more generally it's because we are now sharing the kids and grand kids with other people, other families that also love them.  I can think of few things more worthy of giving thanks.

On the actual Day of Turkey eating we'll improvise.  Maybe curry.  Maybe a brunch at one of the local taverns that is open for food.  

And over the weekend we'll have them all together again for at least an abbreviated family gathering.   I bet there will be mashed potatoes and gravy at a minimum.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Time and Space Capsule - Astronaut Cards

Another set of peculiar artifacts from our fall attic cleaning.  This is a series of trading cards from 1963 that celebrate the astronauts of the Mercury Program.  It took me a while to figure out why I found them so fascinating.  I decided that they were from such a different time for us culturally.  We once had Heroes who became celebrities based on their accomplishments.  In these lesser times we mostly just have Celebrities trying to pose as heroes without accomplishments.

There were seven astronauts in the initial group.  They were referred to as "The Mercury Seven".  Here are the three most famous ones.

Of course John Glenn became the household name.  Fighter pilot in WWII and Korea (where he shot down 3 Migs), he made the first US orbital flight.

Virgil (Gus) Grissom was another Korean War fighter pilot.  After flights in both Mercury and Gemini spacecraft he was scheduled to command Apollo I.  But died in the tragic launch pad fire of January 27, 1967.

Alan Shepard was a WWII veteran of the surface Navy, later a test pilot.  He took up the first manned Mercury flight, a suborbital one.  He then had to wait ten years as an inner ear problem grounded him.  It seems as if it was worth it, as the Commander of Apollo 14 he became the fifth, and oldest man to walk on the moon.

There is a separate card that indexes the 55 card set.

The series comes in two versions.  One has a sort of 3D picture on the back.  The other, less common one, was a give away with Popsicles.

This seems to be one of the more valuable ones.  I guess everyone loves monkeys.

It's hard to imagine in these later and lesser times that anyone could become famous and admired with a visibly receding hairline and irregular teeth.  Its another facet of Celebrity sans Accomplishments.  There's nothing wrong with looking good.  It's just that in a sturdier era your looks were really not a deciding factor.

Alan Shepard 1923-1998

Friday, November 22, 2019

Vampire Deer and the Dark Ages

Happy to report that I'll be excavating at the Roman site of Vindolanda again in May.  Should be an interesting year.  We've got most of the usual merry crew of Anaerobes back together again and the area under excavation will be those intriguing late Roman/Dark Age strata.  True detritus of empire.

I remember one of my first years digging there, before I knew that many people.  I'd go off for walks just to explore.  One one of them I was astonished to see a deer about the size of a decent jack rabbit go bounding off into the woods.  It was a muntjac deer, one of those little critters that British Imperialists encountered, thought was cute and brought home to their estates.  Of course they escaped and are now an invasive, albeit still cute, species in the wild.

They are not so bad, but at the Bell Museum recently I ran across these guys.  Variously called water deer or musk deer they have these alarming tusks.  (When looking them up I discovered that female muntjacs also have small but still concerning fangs). 

These have also gotten loose in England and small populations of what are also called "Vampire Deer" can be found.

With that thought in mind, best of luck to all my Wisconsin deer hunting friends.  Let's be careful out there.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Possums, Toads and Large Rodents

Sometimes grand children are an excuse to do fun things even when they are not actually in tow.  The other day we found ourselves in the Twin Cities and decided to visit the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota.  Just to check it out you know, to see if it would be fun to take the Small Ones some day.

We both remembered it from long ago when it was a quaint little museum full of dusty taxidermy dioramas.  Now it's big and modern.  And while a lot of the dioramas made the trip the place is spic and span.  I have never seen glass polished to the extent that sometimes I had to peer closely to see that it was there at all.  They must have the greatest janitorial staff in existence.

It encouraged me to snap a few pictures with the "Through Glass" function on my camera.  Some of them turned out pretty well.

Wrestling possums.  I figure this will be the grandkids in a few years when the age/size discrepancy is less.

Some of the things on display were live including this meditative toad.

Over in the prehistory section I posed warily next to a Rodent of Unusual Size.  

Technically it is a giant beaver of some sort.  Here's his modern day descendant apparently nursing a stomach ache.  Must have eaten some bad bark.

And because the primary function of the internet is cat pictures, here's a lynx licking its lips in anticipation of chomping onto a little bird.  Both the bird and the lynx are of course full of dry stuffing material so this amount of gustatory anticipation is actually a bit odd.

A fun place to visit.  We will haul the grandkids over some day.