Saturday, June 29, 2019

FIRST Robotics - A Laser Summer Afternoon

Although the FIRST robotics season runs from early January into spring tournament time really good teams get that way by off season work.

This year we are facing an unusual situation.  About half of our current team just graduated. So we have "job openings".

We'll do some recruiting at the high school level but for our summer project we are  working on developing the "farm system" in the middle school ranks.

We invited kids to attend summer sessions based on participation in assorted middle school robotics and programming activities.  

We had 16 take us up on the offer and for our kick off session I think we had 13 of them on hand.  This is a very good turnout for a lazy summer afternoon.

And there is some talent down on the farm.  We had sessions on materials used in robot building, on ways to fasten metal parts, on simple Lego Robot programming and on CAD design.  All areas went well but the CAD group really surprised me.

The software was new to them all.  But after about 90 minutes they had read a blueprint and generated a CAD model that could be put on the laser cutter and made.

Here it is:

Ah, the one in the foreground.  The other part is still a bit beyond them.
A simple part but this is the sort of skill most students only learn much later.  These are kids just finishing 6th and 7th grade.

We are looking forward to having them make it to the Big Club soon.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Alexander Pope's Essay on Dog

(which to be fair he never actually wrote, but should have).

Although I went to a fairly good high school, and in an era when scholarship was perhaps held in higher esteem than of late; I don't recall studying Alexander Pope at all.  This seems odd, he was a thoughtful poet and a very quotable one.  In fact he trails only Shakespeare with regard to entries in many compilations of quotes.

I think the omission was intentional.

Pope was handicapped in life both by a spinal condition that gave him a very hunched over stature, and by being a member of the Roman Catholic faith, then out of favor in England.  Perhaps these combined to put a bit of extra bite in his writings.

No, that understates it.  Alexander Pope may well have been the most vicious writer in the history of the English language.  He frequently unloaded on the many enemies he made in both personal and professional matters.  Consider this gem: 

"Wit pass’d thro’ thee no longer is the same,
As meat digested takes a diff’rent name;"

Yes, you can see why exposing high school kids to that level of sarcasm would not go well at all.

So I only discovered Pope as an adult, and it has been a treat.  My favorite work of his is The Essay on Man.  In it Pope ponders man's place in the universe, musing at length about where Man sits between God and Angels above, and dumb beasts below.

Pope was, of course, a dog lover.  Because he had many enemies he had to, for his own protection, go about with a brace of loaded pistols and a gigantic Great Dane named Bounce.  As Pope in his crippled state was only about 4'8'', the dog loomed protectively over him.

Among Pope's many quotable lines is this one:

"Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends."

I was musing on some of Pope's themes the other day when I stopped by to visit with my pal Bear who lives across the alley.  If Pope had ever gotten around to writing "The Essay on Dog" I think Bear would be an exemplary narrator.  But instead lets just settle for some minor reworking of a few lines of the Essay on Man.  

Great poetry?  No.  Doggerel?  Why, yes...

"Hope Springs Eternal in the Canine Breast.
"Man eats the pork chop, but throws away the rest."
"Oh, blindness to the future! kindly giv'n, 
That each may fill the circle marked by Heav'n, 
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A Hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms of system into ruin hurled, 
And now a bubble burst, and now a SQUIRREL!!!!"

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The KISS Monolith

I mentioned last time that I've gotten pretty good at figuring out the history of a small town by walking around it.  I thought I had Cadillac Michigan neatly categorized as I walked along its lake shore park system.  The basic elements were all there.  Band Shell. check.  Renovated train station.  Check.  Memorial cannon.  Check, and I could tell from quite a distance that it was American, 105mm caliber, WWII vintage.

So when I saw a black slab of stone adjacent to the high school/middle school complex I figured it was a memorial to some tragic event, perhaps a traffic accident?  Nope. Instead on closer examination I saw this:

If you are not inclined to squint at the small print, the story is as follows.  In 1974 the Cadillac High School football team was having a tough season.  In an attempt to get a bit more energy into the squad the coach started playing KISS - loudly - in the locker room.  For that reason, or maybe just because, they started winning and took the conference title.  Somebody told KISS about this and after some communication they agreed to come and perform at the school in the fall of 1975.  It was quite the event.

Homecoming Parade float....

Hanging out with cheerleaders......

And perhaps most surprisingly, Gene Simmons personally painted the face of the town's Mayor!   Ace Frehley was heard to muse "Is he going to get re-elected like that?"

Its a fun little story, one that I found mostly HERE   (Also the source for the photos above).  But it got me wondering.....did the Mayor get re-elected?  Did the head cheerleader run off with the band?

The answer to the second question, happily for all concerned, seems to be no.  I won't intrude on her privacy but the young lady seems to have gone on to a happy and conventional life.

But as to the Mayor....

He is not identified in the photo but his name was Raymond W. Wagner.  He was not re-elected, in fact he resigned in 1976.  His expression in the above photo is very hard to interpret.  Clearly he was having the most bizarre day of his political career.  But under the Kabuki makeup is there a hint of sadness?

He still had a long life ahead of him, but it had known tragedy.  He had two sons, one of whom - at age 33 - had died in October of 1974 just as the KISS story was getting started.  And his other son, although there was no way to know it in this picture, was going to die in 1979.

Perhaps my first instinct, that the black stone was a memorial of sorts, was not entirely wrong.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Tree Shaped Tombstones - Missing Pieces in Cadillac Michigan

When I am traveling I sometimes have a few free hours to just wander about a small town.  I have gotten pretty good at figuring out the history of a place by a walk down Main Street, with side trips to "the other side of the tracks", any open construction sites, and of course the local cemetery.

Cadillac Michigan I had figured out early on.  Logging community, post Civil War, later re purposing as a resort area.  I figured the local cemetery would have more than its fair share of "Tree Shaped Tombstones".  And it did.  Sort of.

It is fairly common to see a larger family marker, in a typical tree trunk shape, surrounded by smaller markers for the individuals.  Sometimes these would have names, sometimes just designations like "Mother".  Here's a few.

Note the interesting flower basket made with smooth pebbles.  This seems to be a local style.  And here below another odd planter, once a sort of tree shape now with the applied plaster flaking off.

And another batch of the small subsidiary tree/log forms.  But notice something missing?

Not a single example of the larger and more interesting family markers.  Just these little guys that you really never see in isolation.  Except in Cadillac Michigan.

I guess different cemetery associations can make whatever rules they like, but these would seem an odd stance to take.  Nor can I see any evidence that the family markers used to be in situ but are now gone.  Usually at least some trace of foundation would remain.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Circle of Life at the Petting Zoo

As the grandkids get older they naturally become more sophisticated.  Of course this is generally speaking a delight, but growing up is never entirely benign.

One of ours has been going to a nearby petting zoo for years now.  He has gotten to know many of the animals by name.  Recently we visited and he asked where Tully the Tortoise was.  Well.......

RIP Tully, not even tortoises live forever.  Much sadness ensued.  The proprietors of the establishment are old hands and have already added two smaller tortoises of the same type.  It's a good thing that "Charlotte's Web" was a recent bed time story.

Other transitions are less dramatic, and of more impact on grandparents than on still oblivious tykes.  Below is me with "Jack the Goat".  This was one year ago.  They usually allow a couple of the younger, cuter goats to roam free.  Jack really threw everything he had into the "I'm cute, feed me" routine.

Jack, June of 2019.  He's been demoted.  Now a gangly teengoat he is in the main goat enclosure which includes Goat Island and a couple of food dispensing machines. As a smaller, newbie goat he is relegated to the back corners of the pen while the alpha goats aggressively work the crowd.  How the Cute have come down in the world...

And while we are on the subject of transformations into older forms (not that I'm thinking of gangly teenaged grandchildren, nope...) here was an educational sighting. A dragonfly who moments before had crawled out of the husk of its nymph form.

Spreading wings and ready to fly off.  (Not that it brings back memories of kids leaving home, nope....)

Well there are still some constants.  Best Pal at the zoo is a camel named Humphrey. Or sometimes, Bumphfrey.  They've known each other for years and I think the big galoot actually recognizes the little guy.  Who is here holding up a bunch of nice tasty grass for his constant friend.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Bronze Fonz - Public Art along the Milwaukee River

We took a little road trip.  It was time to drop in on several generations of relatives and to catch up with old friends.  One stop was Milwaukee.  

Along the river down town there is an array of sculpture art.  Yes, this first one you might know....we'll get back to him in a bit.

Some of it is pretty bad.  This tableau appears to be dumpsters mating.  

But not all entries in the Modern Art category are atrocities.  I rather enjoyed this one when I decided that it should be named "Pollen Count".

But let's get back to the famous one, The Bronze Fonz.

For some reason I assumed that Henry Winkler was from Milwaukee.  He seems like he'd fit in.  But no, Happy Days was simply set in Milwaukee.  Mr. Winkler was born in New York City.  Among other interesting but trivial facts, his family  was Jewish and got out of Germany in 1939; he has significant dyslexia (but went to Yale anyway) and he as been given an OBE for his work with children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities in Britain.

People take their pictures with statues, and like to rub them for luck.  Close inspection shows:

The shoulders of his motorcycle jacket are well worn, a result of people posing with their arms on his shoulders.  This is convenient as this Fonz appears to only be about 5 foot 2.  (The Man himself is only 5'6")

The classic "Thumbs Up" are also well polished.


Monday, June 17, 2019

England 2019 - Signs of the Times

I've mentioned in travel accounts that we stayed in a community called Settle.  Technically this is not correct, our inn was located in Giggleswick, an adjacent village.  It seems like a made up name.  But it is a community of long standing and has a well respected school in it.  This came as a surprise to us when we spotted school kids in uniform wandering about.  The alumni are called "Old Giggleswickians".  Of course they would be.  They are a varied lot including the guy who plays C3PO in Star Wars and a virulent British Fascist from the 1930s.

Celtic Gypsy Klezmer.  I had to look it up, Klezmer is an Eastern European Jewish style of music.  They look fun, and their web page is titled "The Way of the Dodo".  Some of their YouTube videos are worth a look and listen. 

Settle/Giggleswick being oriented to both academia and visitors there seems to be more of a cultural community than in similar small towns.  So there is a film festival. Near as I can tell this is about a group of Palestinians defying Israel by starting a dairy coooperative and producing their own milk.  This was before cows were on the verge of being declared enemies of the Progressive State on the basis of methane emissions I guess.

Another entry in my Lindisfarne Life Saving series.  Why would people just randomly leave pyrotechnics at the Coast Guard station?  This seems weirdly specific.

And speaking of weirdly specific, a massage/beauty parlor down a side alley in Skipton.  I don't know what most of this stuff is.  Don't wanna know either.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Flowers for Field

Sometimes I see things and just sense a significance.  Often it takes after the fact research to figure it out.  When on Lindisfarne Island I was sufficiently intrigued by this tombstone to snap a pic.  I had thought it was F.I.E.L.D. Flowers, but even for the British having five names ahead of your surname would be a bit much.  No, it seems to just be Field Flowers.  A bit of a pun one supposes.

The story is of course a sad one.

At the time of his death in 1843, Field Flowers - son of the Reverend Field Flowers no less - was only 13 years old.  He was drowned in the wreck of the ship Pegasus off Lindisfarne.  Records indicate that his mother Frances and sister Fanny also perished that day. 

Who knew that my relative disinterest in the early history of Lindisfarne and my fascination with the life boat service would go in this peculiar direction.  It's not as if the badly deteriorating monument held any clues.....

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Plague Stone

Last time I mentioned that on a visit to Penrith the author Daniel Defoe inspected various historic features including The Giant's Grave.  I wonder, no, I quite suspect, that he might have visited another obscure site on the edge of town.

This is a Plague Stone, to be found on what would have been the outskirts of the community.

Some background is needed here.  Penrith being a border town in the north of England had to endure frequent unrest due to uprisings of Scots, Rievers and assorted ruffians.  Unfair as it may seem, they also had periodic bouts of Bubonic Plague.  The most serious episode occurred over 1597 and 1598.  About one third of the population perished, with the victims ranging from the heir to the local Lordship down to the humblest of citizens.

There was at the time some understanding of contagion, and this posed a problem.  In towns you had money, a need for food....but you also had the Plague.  In the thinly populated countryside you had food, usually little or no Plague, but also.... no money.  Markets were closed for obvious reasons.

The answer was to set up Plague Stones at the edges of towns.  These were stones with carved hollows in the top.  The depression would be filled with vinegar, thought to be an antiseptic.  Townspeople would approach, put their coins into the vinegar, then step back.  Farmers would come, take the money, and leave produce.  A rather effective triumph of capitalism if you think about it.

Here I am pretending to toss a coin or two in, expecting lunch to turn up.

Surprisingly it did.  A nearby house keeps chickens and despite the presence of a busy road behind me they were allowed to be loose.  They promptly marched over to see what I was up to.

mmmm, Chicken dinner...
No, I did not have a nice lunch at their expense, I doubt the local magistrate would have been impressed by my knowledge of local history.  But lets get back to Daniel Defoe for a moment.

Defoe has possibly the greatest biography of any writer ever.  He was a merchant and a ship owner.  For a while he owned civet cats to make perfume.  He spent time in prison for both his problematic political beliefs and his frequent debts. He at various times ran a brick factory and was appointed a government inspector deputized to collect the tax on bottles. He is known to have been a spy for King William III.  He wrote on an amazing range of topics using 198 known pseudonyms.  When he died of "lethargy" in 1731 he was probably hiding out from his creditors.

Defoe is of course best known for Robinson Crusoe, but he wrote many other memorable tales including Moll Flanders.  Two of his lesser known works have a bearing on our tale.

Between 1724 and 1727 he penned "A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain", a very early form of travel literature.  In it he describes Penrith in detail.  He is known to have visited at an unclear date; many entries in the Tour seemingly based on his earlier journeys as a merchant.

In 1722 he had published "A Journal of the Plague Year".  In it is contained a highly detailed account of the London Plague of 1665. Now Defoe was only five years old at the time and was evacuated from the city quite promptly.  His narrator for the tale is listed as the enigmatic "H.F.".  This is generally considered to be his uncle Henry Foe. Perhaps nephew Daniel had access to an unknown memoir, although other interesting theories have been put forward including one that has DeFoe coming into possession of the contemporary diary of Samual Pepys and managing to break the encryption in which it was written!

The Bubonic Plague must to have fascinated Defoe; it is a topic he touched upon often prior to writing his "Journal" (if we assume it is at least partly his creation).  So I assume he would have to be interested in a Plague Stone when he visited Penrith.

Does the concept make it into his writing?


"It is true, People us'd all possible Precaution, when any one bought a Joint of Meat in the Market, they would not take it of the Butcher's Hand, but take it off of the Hooks themselves.  On the other Hand, the Butcher would not touch the Money, but have it put into a Pot full of Vinegar which he kept for that purpose.  The Buyer carry'd always small Money to make up any odd Sum, that they might take no Change."

Plague Stones appear to be reasonably common in England.  At least stones for which the claim is made are common.  Some are just hollowed out rocks.  Others, such as the Penrith example, are early cross bases repurposed for this role.  Likely the Penrith specimen originated at the same church where Defoe viewed The Giant's Grave.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Giant's Grave

If you prefer your history to be neat and tidy then border towns like Penrith are frustrating.  But certainly interesting.  There are just so many unknowns.

For instance.  Below you see St. Andrew's Church in the heart of Penrith.  The "new" church you see here is only from the early 1700's.  A still standing tower from the 12th or 13th century is a survival from an earlier version.  But before that there was something else.  Because what you see in the foreground is much older.

This is "The Giant's Grave".  Fancifully it is contrived to be the burial place of a giant. Realistically it is a medieval gathering together of assorted  earlier, ancient monuments.  Two Anglo-Saxon crosses and four "Hogback" tombstones of Anglo-Viking make, perhaps from the 10th to 11th century.

Think of it as a Stretch Limo sort of grave.
The grave is associated - on the basis of very vague legends - with a certain Owen Caesarius, King of Cumbria between 900 and 937 AD.  When excavated in the 16th century a skeleton of generous - but certainly not gigantic - proportions was found along with a sword.

The "hogback" stones are felt to be distinctively Norse in their origins, reflecting the Viking influence in the area.  Possibly intended to represent Viking houses they have elaborate carvings of biblical and natural scenes, along with geometric features of unclear significance.

The hogbacks show evidence of breakage and repair.  This could have simply been due to weather and rough handling, but supposedly in the early modern era the Giant's Grave was partially demolished by the church, only to have the work be stopped and the stones put back in place when local opposition to the destruction became known.

Nearby is another early cross, likely also from the 10th century.  It is called "The Giant's Thumb".  While on a new base it has been in its present location for a long time.  The circular cross and wheel atop it has been partially lost to time and the elements, but the bottom half survives.  In fact, the two bottom holes may have been enlarged on purpose.  The Thumb traditionally was a place where local miscreants would be tied up - wrists up in the holes - and flogged for their misdeeds.
Because whipping someone outside the door of the church was an extra good lesson to them.
All in all an interesting little collection of artifacts, albeit with more legend than fact associated with them.  They have attracted the attention of the history minded for a long time.  One visitor in fact was the Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe. His visit to Penrith may well have included another ancient monument, one of particular interest to his literary career. 

Come back next time, we'll visit a Plague Stone with the author/spy/merchant Daniel Defoe.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Yorkshire Hills - Jubilee Cave

Victoria Cave is certainly the most famous of the Yorkshire caves above Settle, but it is not the only one up there.  My OS map showed a half dozen along the five miles I walked that day, and from reading other sources I have learned of others that have been explored and excavated for evidence of early times.

Here's a substantial cave just past Victoria.  I can't find reference to any archaeology finds but it has the look of a place that has been cleared, presumably for that purpose.  One reference I found named it "Wet Cave".  Quite apt, it had in it a small stream running through tenacious cave mud.  My hiking boots still have a thin coating of this two weeks after my return to the States.

Other than a couple of rock climbers at Victoria Cave, and the hale oldster I mentioned the other day, I had the high country to myself.  Unless you count this inhabitant of a cave entrance.

In the same area as Victoria Cave is Jubilee Cave.  I understand that it was excavated at the same time as the more famous cave, evidently by the Pig Yard Club I mentioned on Wednesday.  There were said to be Romano-British and neolithic finds but if there is a detailed report it has eluded me.

The cave has three entrances that link together in a series of small rooms and rubble strewn passages.  A sign indicates that the roof is not stable and I did not venture all the way back.

I never like to see modern artifacts - aka trash - in sites like this.  But I was intrigued by this.  It was a nice reminder of the discovery of Victoria Cave by a wandering hound.  Did some walker bring a tennis ball up the hill and toss it into this cave in conscious homage?

It was a pleasant thought with which to finish my morning.  As I sat outside Jubilee Cave eating my lunch I looked across a few yards at a pile of rock that also seemed to have three entrances.  It was almost like a miniature version of Jubilee.

And if you look very, very closely.....

I was sitting quietly enough that three little bunnies emerged, each from a different little cave entrance.  Surely this would be more than enough to send an enthusiastic dog down a dark hole in pursuit!  Maybe this is why the tennis ball was ignored.

There are lots of caves in Yorkshire and a very dedicated community of caver-historians who explore them.  I suspect there is a lot left to be discovered.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Yorkshire Hills - Victoria Cave

Welcome to the archaeology of a place that is really, really old.  Victoria Cave in the hills above Settle, Yorkshire.

The modern history of the place goes back to 1837, when a couple of local lads out for a stroll had their dog go missing.  It seems the hound had crawled down a small hole, probably in pursuit of small game.  He found a lot more.

Prying away rocks that were blocking the entrance a cave was entered, one in which Romano-British artifacts were lying about on the surface.  Excavations went on at a leisurely pace for a few years, with the cave being named Victoria after the coronation of same in 1838.  But it turns out there was a lot more waiting deeper down.

Ongoing excavations soon turned up deeper layers where implements of neolithic man and the skeletons of now extinct animals were found.  The bones of giant deer,  hippopotamuses, and straight tusked elephants turned up, many of them seemingly hauled in by giant hyenas in the period between Ice Ages some 130,000 years ago.

These discoveries attracted the attention of such notables as Charles Darwin, one of the members of a Committee established to study the cave.  (Sadly I can't find evidence that Darwin ever visited the site).
The 1870's excavation site
Eventually the members of the Committee had a falling out over interpretation of the finds and Victoria cave was abandoned.  

But after The Great War, a local with the fabulous name of Tot Lord resumed excavation of Victoria and nearby caves with a band of amateurs who went by the moniker The Pig Yard Club.  Through their efforts and with the benefit of more modern archaeological techniques, the long history of Victoria Cave has been more accurately defined.  For instance carbon dating of the earliest artifacts suggests that humans were here circa 12,000 BC, the earliest such evidence in Yorkshire.

Another bit of modern flourish to old archaeology can be seen in these digital 3D images of the initial Roman era finds:

3D Romano-British artifacts from Victoria Cave

As one with an abiding interest in the Roman aspects of this excavation I was able to locate an on line account of the excavations dated 1872.  It adds some helpful details, such as the fact that the coins from the site are a couple of early ones from Trajan and a larger number of late Imperial issues and Barbarous Radiates from the declining days of Roman power.  In true British Imperial fashion this report goes way out on a limb regarding its conclusions that the people who left these artifacts were refugees from barbarian assaults.

Here's the inside of the cave.  The notion that there are still important archaeological layers here after so many years of excavation by farmers, antiquarians and Pig Yard Club members is a bit dubious, but good manners alone was enough to keep me on the proper side of the barrier.