Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tournament Time 2019 - Day Three

Home again.  Very tired.  

We continued to struggle with various robot bugs all day.  A few hardware issues.  A few software issues.  And worst of all those vague problems that could be either.  It is hard to stomp on bugs when you can't see exactly where they are.

So the robot did not operate anywhere near its full potential.  For all that we clawed our way back to .500 before losing our last match and finishing 4 - 5.  Much was learned.

So concludes a very educational season, one in which we learned many things that will make the next campaign even better.

And make no mistake, the next campaign is already being pondered in the far corners of tired brains...

A few pictures.

Senator Amy Klobuchar has long been a supporter of FIRST.  Most years she appears in person.  This time around she was in Iowa for some reason.  She addressed the event with positive and mostly apolitical encouragement.  I consider her a class act.

We finally rounded up most of the team and got a photo with the robot and pit.

Closing up shop at the end of the event is bittersweet.  And sometimes a little surreal. A team near us is the Centurions and has a Roman theme.  Here barbarians are pillaging the Eternal City.

A few more robotics things in the next month or so.  We like to bring our current machine around to show sponsors and potential recruits for next year.  Right now the batteries are depleted,  but we will soon apply the chargers again.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Tournament Time 2019 Day Two

When you walk around the pits at a FIRST robotics event you tend to see a lot of similar looking machines.  Oh, in a way this is necessary, all are built with the same restrictions and to do the same tasks.  But still, there is less variety than you'd expect.  Teams tend to study and copy the successful work of other teams, and there are just certain ways to do things that are more efficient.  You want to pick things up?  Some kind of wheeled intake looks to be the most efficient way to do it.

It is rather like walking around in a suburban parking lot and seeing many vehicles that differ only in color and minor details.  Then you come across something strange, perhaps an exotic Italian or British sports car.

Well our team built the equivalent of a Masserati or a Triumph TR-6.  Our vacuum based design is hard to build, harder to build such that it will be a success.

It's probably fun to own an exotic sports car.  But you have to be exacting in your maintenance.  Otherwise it spends as much time in the shop going zero MPH as it does on the highway doing 120.  

This is a roundabout way of saying that while our robot has gotten a lot of interest and many compliments, it is one that has to be watched like a hawk for the latest unforeseen issue that will put it in the shop.  We've had hardware, software and communications glitches.  We bent a pneumatic cylinder and misaligned our vision tracking system.  We figured out that a 10 millisecond communication code hiccup was making us drop things as power to the vacuum motor dropped.  We busted one of our custom wheels trying to do something in haste.  It has not been an easy day.

Our record is currently 3 - 4 with two more matches tomorrow.  Just a couple pics of the day:

There are two teams from China and one from Turkey in attendance.  At the beginning of the day there is a program where among other things the National Anthem of participating teams are sung.  That of China is rather melodic, but one suspects is mostly about tractors.  That of Turkey is a bit eerie.  As is their flag which had on it an image  of a guy in a Fez.  I figure it is Kemal Attaturk.

If you are mad enough to own an exotic sports car you will at least have the admiration of the similarly minded.  Like robotics judges.  We have had a lot of them through today, mostly asking questions about our interesting vacuum system, how it was designed, what problems we encountered ( plenty to say there ).  We are winding up an interesting year, one in which a very ambitious project was attempted and from which much has been learned.  Generally in that most estimable fashion known as The Hard Way.

Robot at rest in the pit.  Back to it in the morning.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Tournament Time 2019 Day One

 Thursday of a FIRST robotics tournament is set aside for inspections, prepping the robot, and for practice matches.

We cleared inspection before noon....but ran into a variety of small issues.  One of the pneumatic cylinders that helps our robot do a step climb had been bent, probably at our open house.  Trouble is that the roller foot had been put on with what the kids described as "about a gallon" of Locktite.  Taking it off involved heating it up with a lighter to melt the glue.

The arena, pits on the far side, competition field on the near side.  I had sought out the peace and quiet of the cheap seats for a while.  I think I dozed off for a few minutes.

Robot standing guard in our pit over night.

We will see how tomorrow plays out.  Our first match is against a set of very good teams.  Hopefully it gets a bit easier after that.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Robot Goes to Play

We will be packing up the robot and pit equipment tonight.  Practice matches tomorrow, full on Robot Tournament Friday and Saturday.

Here's where to find us, video of our matches and the outcome of same should appear  HERE

Normal posting schedule goes out the window.  

I'll see how things go and what I have to say about them over the next few days...

Monday, March 25, 2019

FIRST Robotics 2019 - Lookin' Good in the Pits

Our merry little band of roboteers is a small town team.  And while we have had steady growth in the four years of our existence we have never had the resources of most of the teams we go up against.  Some have five times our membership and ten times our budget.  Actually that is almost certainly an under estimate.  At our upcoming tournament there are two teams coming from China and one from Turkey!

5826 has always managed to get the absolute most out of available resources but inevitably there are trade offs.  It was pretty obvious at our first event four years ago that we had not put much effort into our pit area.  We had a table, a work bench, and a couple of toolboxes.   It was so minimalist that teams gave us stuff.  Somebody made us a sign.  We had a team flag that was made the night before.  Here's our pit in year one, mostly what you see is the banner from our neighbors.  Otherwise it is us, plywood walls and an unexpectedly successful robot.

Years go by.  Each campaign we throw our energies into building a competitive robot and when it comes time to work on anything extra the kids are usually worn out.  Improvements to our pit area have been minimal.

One of our hometown companies is Spectrum Industries.  They are a leading manufacturer of furniture especially for the education, technology and government markets.  We are talking charging carts for laptops, podiums, desks, utility carts for Maker's Spaces, that sort of thing.  For a number of years we have had an informal relationship with them, among other things our practice field elements have generally been constructed with surplus materials from Spectrum and they have been generous contributors of other surplus stuff for our annual on line auction.

Last fall there was an opportunity to present information on our team and FIRST generally to their employees.  All of them, as it was at their annual meeting.  This lead to a fascinating conversation with their President and an off season project that we hope will raise the profile of the team while showcasing what Spectrum does. 

We decided that we'd build Ultimate Pit Equipment.

I've had four or five moments this past season where I had to pause and look again at something I had seen to make sure my eyes had not deceived me.  Our preliminary meeting with the Spectrum design and production staff was one of those moments when one of our student team members reached in his pocket and pulled out a thumb drive.  He had already studied the Spectrum product line and drawn up CAD designs of pit equipment based on these.  

Along the way of course there were some setbacks.  Different software programs do not always play well together, teen aged brains can miss things, the plan to create both pit carts and a matching robot transport cart with a power lift was just a little too ambitious.  But perhaps 90% of the initial design made it through to a final product that we were very happy to receive six days before our tournament.

From first concept meeting:

To fully realized product:

Robot, pit equipment and about half the team taking a bow.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Belated Saint Patricks Day from the Brewery Cave - Weston Missouri

A bit late for St. Patrick's Day but today a brewery cave with a lot of history and an Irish flavor.

Weston Missouri is not much of a town today, but in the mid 19th century it was a key staging ground for westward expansion.  Established in 1837 it was a river port and a point of departure for those heading out into Kansas and beyond.  And of course it had a brewery.  

In fact the Weston Brewery was very early, being established in 1842.  You can read more of the history HERE.

The caves established way back then were built well, and today are home for O'Malley's pub.

Here's a nice local news spot that shows the layout and gives a flavor of the place.  Good music and good beer down in the old brewery caves.  It does not get much better than that.  Worth a side trip if I find my way down in those parts.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Sky Net gets an Autopilot

This year's FIRST robotics challenge involves some very precise functions.  You need to grab either a big bouncy orange ball or a flat, fairly heavy lexan disc.  And then deliver them places.

Time is critical so you can't goof around.  Most teams are using some kind of velcro system or pneumatic pinchers.  We instead have a dual vacuum system.

It works well but you have to get suction onto the right spots.  Remarkably the build and software teams have found a way for the robot to autopilot right on in using vision tracking and a highly sensitive gyroscope.  It nails it every time.

Here's what it looks like in action.

This is using special reflective targets but in principle it could be modified to seek out any known shape and color.  Sky Net smiles digitally and ponders its next move.....

Monday, March 18, 2019

Where I'll be spending the Zombie Apocalypse

I don't do any recreational shopping, and find that my basic needs can be met with infrequent visits to a few familiar stores.  So it was quite unusual for me to recently find myself in a Sam's Club.  For my UK friends and others unfamiliar with such matters, this is a branch of Wal Mart.  With even bigger boxes of stuff.  Stacked even higher.

Maybe it was the thought that this would be a great place to stock up if you were expecting some sort of Doomsday Scenario but I looked around and realized that this would be an outstanding place to ride out a Zombie Apocalypse.

I'm basing this tactical judgement not just on the amount of "stuff" to be found in a Sam's club.  It also has very few doors, handy skylights for when the power goes out, and most importantly...big stacks of stuff reaching up to the ceiling beams.

As a young lad I was very adept at tree climbing and should think that - given what has to be considered extreme motivation - I could still SpiderMan my way about up there, traveling from department to department while meeting my basic needs for a very long while.

But where is the prime real estate?  Which ziggurat of merch should I stake out as my home base?

Here's a candidate:  Oreos up top.  You can't see it but the lower tier is full of cases of cheap beer.  Not that I'd prefer to drink that swill but it would be an effective base weight to keep the zombies from gathering their few remaining brain cells for a coordinated push over of the entire aisle.

But actually I think this is going to be my Post Apoc Home.  The picture is not exactly sharp.  This stuff is a long ways up which is really the vital point.  But an entire pallet of combo packs containing Hostess Twinkies and Cupcakes!

The Best By Date is nonsense by the way.  Until recently I had a Twinkie I purchased in Egypt 12 years ago.  When I tossed it out it had gotten a little dried out but no doubt would have still been edible.  Perhaps a can of Miller Lite would pair nicely with this entree....

Friday, March 15, 2019


With UK travels ahead of course the question of side trips has been raised. Two weeks of digging Roman stuff is great, but if one takes the trouble to fly across the pond it only makes sense to see a few other things.

Our eventual selection was different but for a while we considered Edinburgh up in Scotland.  

Which of course got me thinking about cities named "burg" and assorted variations on that theme.

When the Western portion of the Roman empire imploded in the 5th century urban areas overall did quite poorly.  And their modern names give us some clues.

A few places had sufficient value as trading centers that they more or less continued on under new management and under their old names.  Londinium to London for instance.

But most places in Britannia, and quite a few on the Continent, just became fortresses where post Roman war lords patched together earlier buildings and declared themselves rulers of all that they could see.  And perhaps a few hills beyond that.

If the fortifications they occupied were definitively Roman, and some measure of literacy lingered on a while, many of these communities were named after the Latin word for fort: castrum.  It has many varients, - chester being a common one.  Manchester, Lancaster and so forth.

In theory place names ending in - burg could also be considered to be from the Latin "burgus" meaning castle.  But this seems to be a borrowed word from Germanic sources. Certainly when the motley crew of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, various batches of Goths and Burgundians started stomping about they called their fortified places "burgs" whether or not they had Roman stones in the foundations.  Examples of places ending in -burg or its variant -borough are too numerous to bother listing.  The word can also mean mountain or high place.  You want to build your fortress up on high ground after all.

No doubt these were desperate times.  I'm sure more than a few of the surviving populace of the former Empire were reduced to poverty and were not bothered by whatever petty criminality they could get away with.

And what would you call somebody who stole from a "burg"?

Why, a burglar of course.*

*Late Latin "burgare" to break open in the sense of breaking and entering a property. The l in burglar may be borrowed from "latro" Latin for thief.  From which we also get "larceny". 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Coin of the Emperor Hadrian

Probably this qualifies as one of my occasional "Time Capsule" posts.  These usually involve random historical artifacts that I encounter, often when cleaning out drawers.

I have a number of Roman coins. All low value, low end ones that I have picked up for cheap.  But this one is a bit special.  It is one of two coins I bought in a small shop in Trier, Germany on our honeymoon.  Or "Hochzeitreise" in the local lingo.  If you are curious that translates to "high times trip".  Ah, the psychology of the Teuton...

Here we see the emperor Hadrian.  In addition to building the Wall across northern England he is generally regarded as the best and most capable of the Roman emperors. Scholars of course have a thing for the Republic over the Empire, but in the latter Hadrian was as good as things got. 

We tend to think of ancient empires as being timeless.  But if you look at the 37 years (and let the spousal record be written as 37 Wonderful Years) since I got this coin, and see what happened to Hadrian's Rome over the same span, well consider what the erudite Gibbon had to say in the first lines of his magnus opus "Decline and Fall":

IN the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. 

Yes, life was good. But if we arbitrarily set the issue of my coin at perhaps 135 AD, how were things 37 years down the road?

No longer could the Emperor live in the luxury of the Palace, or in the case of the remarkable Hadrian, conduct an inspection tour of his peaceful domains*.  The Emperor now was Marcus Aurelius, and he was off in Germany suppressing a revolt, then importing the temporarily behaving Germans into the empire to repopulate areas decimated by the Antonine Plague.  This smoldered on for 15 years and in places killed a third of the populace.

Elsewhere it was just more troubles.  Sarmatians attacking across the Danube, a peasant uprising in Egypt. 

And worse lay ahead.  Marcus was the last of the decent Emperors for a long while.  His son, the venomous Commodus, succeeded him and proved so evil and debauched that he was eventually slain** and the Empire thrown into a civil war of such chaos that five emperors rose and fell in a single year.

A few historical howlers aside, the feel of this is pretty well depicted in the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator.

Happy to be living in less troubled times....


*Hadrian's famous tour of the Empire was commemorated in a series of fabulous coins with personifications of various provinces.  I'm surprised that he is not better known these days as an early gay icon, his relationship with his wife being distant in more ways than one, but his constant companion Antinoos is widely considered to have been his real love. 

**Speaking of love, Commodus ended up being strangled in his bathtub by a wrestler.  The conspiracy that was thus realized included prominently his mistress Marcia.  I'll never think of Marcia Brady the same way again....

Monday, March 11, 2019

By Jupiter!, he said Jovially...

Robotics season is not over, but the team and the machine are in waiting mode now. Robots wait patiently.  Humans less so.

Perhaps it is a good week to look ahead.

In early May I'll be off to excavate at the Roman site of Vindolanda up in the wilds of Northumbria near Hadrian's Wall.  

Let's have a week of posts looking ahead to that, shall we?

Something new at Vindolanda this year is the erection of repro altars on site.  These are casts of originals found in the same location a few years back.  The real ones are in the associated museum but it is cool to have the feeling of an ancient shrine back again after so many centuries.

The shrine is to Jupiter Dolicheus, one of the assorted personifications of the Roman king of the gods, Jupiter.  With some eastern weather god stuff overlaid.

Since Latin does not have the letter J, Jupiter is rendered as IOVI, sometimes Anglicized as Jove.  The I O M on the altar above is short hand for IOVI OPTIMO MAXIMO, or Jupiter, best and greatest.

Recently I actually thought about a word we use fairly often, "jovial" and wondered how it fit in with Jove.  There had to be a connection, yes?

Indeed.  We think in its modern usage of jovial meaning good natured, amiable, cheerful.  The roman Jove certainly had that aspect to his persona - witness the many demigod offspring he sired by a bevy of mortal women - but he was also known for tossing the occasional thunderbolt at those who deserved smiting.  This by the way is how Dolicheus, a local weather god, was a natural fit with Jupiter.  Thunder and lightning were the stock and trade of both of them.

The etymology of jovial alas is mundane.  From late Latin jovialus - "of Jupiter" - we get the 16th century French word jovial, which meant born under the sign of Jupiter.  So just a bit of astrology.  

I tried to figure out where it fits into the twelve classic signs of the Zodiac but quickly got bogged down in enough internet gibberish that I just gave up.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Shards and Snippets

It has been a long, cold winter.  My apologies if the stock of three times a week material is getting a bit thin.  Better and warmer times ahead.

A few random things sitting on my office shelves.  First an easy one.

This popped up in my back yard when I was doing some gardening.  It is a circa 1895 patent medicine bottle.  Our house is a decade or so newer, so somebody was tossing trash into a then empty lot.  Or perhaps surreptitiously nipping high alcohol content "medicine".  This is from a fancy bottle that held "Warner's Safe Cure".  There are a lot of variants but this is the commonest one:

It actually had a very fancy looking safe embossed in the glass.  This was both a pun that emphasized the benign nature of the medicine, and a bit of homage.  Hulbert Harrington Warner of Rochester N.Y. made a pile of money selling safes before he got into the patent medicine game.

Here's another enigmatic shard, it came up during construction just down the hill.  Much older, probably 1860's.

If you guessed St. Louis, very well, you are quite smart indeed.

This one is actually a lot harder.  It was a square, amber bottle that held about a quart. It was a type used for both for whiskey and for patent medicines, specifically of a type called bitters.  In fact bitters was pretty much just hootch with herbs in it.  More socially acceptable and heck, it probably did make you feel a bit better.

I have a number of source books on this sort of thing but have so far been unable to document what I assume to be a W.B. or W.E. Lawrence with an embossed medicine - or liquor - bottle out of St. Louis.

And on the matter of bitters bottles, lets get really obscure with this artifact.  It is a bit of advertising that has been cut out, presumably for a child's scrap book.  

Here's the flip side.  This was an advertising card.  They were usually about 3 inches by 2 and were very common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They were free, and often issued in sets that people collected.

It has the usual testimonials, which I've always assumed were made up, and also has a faint stamp from Farr Brothers Druggists Eau Claire Wisconsin.

Very little is known about Cobban or his concoctions. He seems to have been a small time manufacturer. This trade card is the only artifact relating to him that I've seen.  From the newspaper ad below (1886) we can place the approximate date.  An earlier but less legible ad I've seen is from three years earlier.

I included just a bit more of this newspaper that necessary.  The little notice below regards the domestic travails of Henry Gross was just too good a snippet of history to not preserve.  I hope things worked out.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

FIRST Robotics 2019 - Open House

After Bag and Tag we took a much needed break.  For a few days anyway.  With a five week gap between the official end of build season and our competition it was tempting to just ease way back, but of course that can't happen.

Our wayward software and PR kids came back from that long school trip.  And even our builders still had several minor subsystems to tune up.  And practice, practice, practice the driving using our "B-machine", shown here being prepped.

We had hard slogging to to get ready for an Open House.  Remarkably every critical system was non/minimally functional on Saturday afternoon.  Things broke that I did not think were breakable!  But the team kept plugging away and had things in order and it must be noted completely cleaned up in time for company on Monday.

We had a very good turn out.  School board members and administrators, teachers, sponsors, family members and perhaps most importantly, some next year Freshmen we hope to recruit.  

The robot ran for hours, which got the motors rather toasty, but had no significant mechanical issues. It really is an amusing machine to watch and the kids are getting better at driving it.  

Several software sessions in the days ahead, then more driving and mechanical tune ups on Saturday.

It is all rather tiring.  I feel a bit like the kid in the foreground of the picture above.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Views from the Vortex

Well, now it is March but our Groundhog Winter won't let up.  Here are a few pictures I took back on February 25th.  Things are really no better today.

1. The Archaeological View  

When digging in Belgium last year I met a guy named Dane Alexander.  A big burly Yorkshireman he was remarkably able to excavate trenches with the precision of a surgeon.  Hell, better than most surgeons I've scrubbed in with.  Ever since I have striven to cut clean straight edges.  This is, I suspect, a bit annoying at the dinner table.  But when clearing snow it provides a bit of entertainment in a mundane and repetitive task.

Dane, you might be able to do a bit better with your trowel, but you'd freeze to death first!

Here's the Master and some of his works...

2. The Ornithological View

In the northern climes of the Western Hemisphere the acknowledged initial sign of spring is the arrival of robins.  Well, I saw my first one this morning.  He was huddled, feathers all fluffed up, and appeared manifestly unhappy.  When I stepped out to snap a photo he flitted to a nearby bush - or such of it that was above the snow line - leaving as a departing statement a spray of bird droppings.  I think that summarized his opinions effectively.

3. The Speleological View

In case you don't use the word more than every other life time or so, speleology is the study of caves and related matters.  My post on Stalags and Stalagmites a couple of weeks back got me thinking.  When the two meet, what do you call them?  Here icicle stalagmites actually reach the ground.  Note also the smaller ones to the left in this picture.  They are inclined at a 30 degree angle.  Not something you see all that often, it can only happen when a brief melt is met by suddenly dropping temps and a strong breeze.

4. The Theological View 

According to Dante, the lowest circle of hell is where Satan sits forever bound in a frozen lake.  Is this a 19th century engraving of this scene?  Or a selfie run through a few photo filters?

Friday, March 1, 2019

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Farewell Farmersville

Information on the brewery outside of tiny Farmersville Wisconsin is hard to come by. It was in Section 26 of Leroy Township, Dodge County, and was started by a man named George Schmid.

Schmid was born in Bavaria in 1829.  There, and what better place really, he learned the brewer's trade before immigrating to America in 1853.  He spent three years in Milwaukee before starting his own brewery.  He was a substantial farmer as well with a large house and barns on the site.  Production was approximately 100 barrels per year.

The next owner appears to have been Nicholas Weidig.  He was born in Dodge County in 1849, briefly served in the 44th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry at the end of the Civil War, then moved to Leroy township in 1868.  He worked for a time at one of the breweries in nearby Mayville before acquiring the Farmersville brewery.  He took over some time before 1880 and increased output to approximately 175 barrels per year.  The brewery appears to have closed some time in the 1890s.  With such a small output it was probably little more than a supply for local farmers and taverns, perhaps a bit more resilient in the face of mass marketing and economy of production by the nearby Milwaukee breweries.

This map shows the brewery location in 1890. 

The cave associated with this brewery is not actually on the site of same, it is a distance away and on private property.  The entrance is difficult to impossible to locate unless you know where to look.

The cave is, alas, in the final stages of collapse.

The chamber beyond has caved in, the one closest to the exit is half filled with debris.  Interestingly the bricks still retain a nice coat of whitewash after all these years.