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.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Machines Behaving Badly 2019

The 19th annual Machines Behaving Badly event is done.  And it was a good one.  A dozen or so helpers turn up.  The arena rolls in and is assembled.  Robots get last minute finishing touches.  And the audience shows up.  

There's probably an upper limit of how many you can park on bleacher seats around a six by six arena.  And this is about it.  At the other end of the room the high school team had the Big Robot up and running.

Nice to see a lot of girls trying their hand at the controls.  Also the occasional five year old.

And there were the competition robots.  Many and varied, it made for fascinating matches.  Spinners versus pushers.  Lifter bots versus machines armed only with duct tape and unrealistic expectations.  Some did way better than I expected.  Some surprised us in other ways.

There was a new arena hazard this year, a pneumatic powered axe.  Perhaps just a bit less lethal than the Chains of Doom, but it provided some nice moments.

For the kid brothers and sisters in the crowd there was the opportunity to operate the arena hazards or to drive a VolunteerBot. We had several of these on hand, but the voyage of this Barbie Themed bot is worth chronicling.  Thrown together in about fifteen minutes.

Proudly driven by kids.

And at the end, minus some parts and with a new punk hairdo, Barbie in Robot Cemetery.

A fun but tiring day, made possible only the efforts of my fun and tireless minions.  You see them here and there in the photos wearing the black new version Machines Behaving Badly shirts.  Many people asked about buying one.  But of course I had to shake my head and tell them:

"Some things in Life cannot be bought.  They can only be earned."

Some of the students now bumbling about with these crude machines will go on to far greater things.  They will join the high school FIRST team, they might even be motivated towards a career in technology.  They will accomplish a lot.  But not by buying it, by earning it.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Machines Behaving Badly - Eve of Destruction

This year's trophies.  The bases are blocks of metal from the tech school dumpster.  The upper parts are aluminum scraps from a long ago combat robot.  

Hopefully the event goes off well.  The ever increasing expertise of my helpers is counterbalanced by declining levels of student technical skills and by the general disintegration of supplies, especially batteries.   

There is a greater degree of "biodiversity" in this year's field of competitors.  Two wheel and four wheel pushers.  A two robot multibot and a three robot "unit".  A couple of spinning bars, a grinder disc, a fairly flimsy looking flipper.  One.....maybe two saw blade bots.  A rare full body spinner.  I figure more than half the field will be somewhat interesting.  

With the general tardy nature of the work there has of course been minimal time for drive practice.  I'm ok with that, learn on the job.  

In fact the entire improv nature of Machines Behaving Badly is part of the point.  Immutable Deadlines, obeying the laws of physics, attempting to find loopholes in all other rule sets....good training for future robotics.  And in fact roughly 2/3 of the high school FIRST team come to us via the MBB route.  Of course the first thing I have to do is "un-teach" them a lot of sloppy technique involving lava flows of hot glue.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Pink Reptiles of Wisconsin

It's the time of year when we look up at our front yard maple tree and wonder which will drop first, that gigantic mass of leaves or a foot of snow.  Leaves appear to be winning this year so there have been multiple runs to the municipal yard waste dump.

Over on one end of it are big piles of concrete and rubble.  Mostly from projects around town but evidently some private donations as well.  Here's a swell pink alligator that was set up tastefully.

And say, aren't those some nice red bricks back behind it?  Why yes, and one of them will feature in a future tale of local history.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Friday, November 8, 2019

Robotics Update - Time grows short

The middle school combat robots class is heading into the home stretch.  It's been a challenge this year.  In addition to the usual ups and downs of working with this age group it turns out we had fewer sessions to work with than expected.  Something about parent teacher conferences that had not been put on the schedule at the time I did my pre-season planning.  So, time to buckle down and work harder and smarter.

Some pictures taken while the clock ticks down.

Our first up and running machine.  Four wheel drive with nice traction tape on the wheels.  With a ramp and some armor it will be a competitive robot.

One week after that photo was taken things were looking up considerably.  An intimidating machine, although the rpms of the saw blade are pretty low.

I put no restrictions on "at home" work or family help.  This lad and his grandpa cooked up something impressive.  Future FIRST recruit I'm thinkin'.

The gulf between high ambitions and the ability to pull them off is usually huge.  It sure was with this kid.  But with a bit of extra help his project is coming together reasonably well.  Other times we just celebrate the high ambitions, which are worth something.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

CCC Camp Taylor Lake

I've visited the sites of several CCC camps "up north" in the general vicinity of our cabin.  They are always fascinating.  So when I heard about one that was said to be in such good condition that the baseball backstop was still intact I was quite optimistic.

In one sense this site, Camp Taylor Lake, was a disappointment.  But in examining the reasons why the CCC remains were so minimal I did, as a sort of historical consolation prize, come across another nice little story.  More of a tribute really.

The sense of something being not quite right began with that baseball backstop.

It is in way too good a state of preservation to be from the 1930s.  It still has chicken wire on it.  And there was a basketball back board in even better shape.  The things that looked "too new" were everywhere.

Even the floor surfaces I came across were well preserved.  Usually CCC camps were tossed together with whatever was on hand and by recruits who had at best a vague idea of how to build things.  Crumbling concrete and foundations made of round boulders are the norm.

To understand this let's just meander through the history of this camp.  As it indicates on the sign, this was a camp that was established early in the CCC era....and with operations continuing to 1942 it would have been one of the last ones to exist in Wisconsin.  It appears to have been a fairly major camp, one that was a sort of hub for others.

With the usual fragmentary histories available I have been able to puzzle out that it was established by a "junior" CCC Company.  A group made up of World War One veterans - note the V designation on the sign - arrived in 1936.  The work was of course appropriate to the area.  Forestry and fire fighting.  A picture of Company V1676:

You can't tell much about the camp from this.  Just that there was at least one whoppin' big barracks type building there.

With the onset of WWII the CCC was disbanded, most of the young and not so young men exchanging one uniform for another and joining the armed forces.

The camp on Taylor Lake was presumably vacant during the war years but in 1951 it was leased by Northwestern University who operated a surveying school there for the next five years.  The University of Wisconsin took it over at about that time and for the same purpose.  It was said that there were..."about 20 permanent metal buildings, many of which remain from the days when it was a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in the 1930's.  Previously the University of Wisconsin's Engineering department had run their surveying camp near Devil's Lake, but pesky tourists had become too much of a problem there.

The new camp on Taylor Lake was very much the project of one man.  He is remembered at the site:

On his passing one of his students, later a colleague penned a very nice memorial to Professor Eldon Wagner.  It mentions prominently his love of the Camp Taylor site, the quality of the engineering knowledge passed along there, and the role his wife Roselyn took in the practical running of the camp.  The softball field apparently was the site of annual student vs. faculty ball games.  I found some photos of the program and the site HERE.   

The engineering camp specialized in surveying technology and ran until 1972.  By that point the old CCC buildings must have been getting a bit run down and apparently everything was razed.

There's a lesson here for me.  Not all history of importance is a thousand or even a hundred years old.  I went to Taylor Lake just looking for another collection of picturesque CCC ruins, remnants of the Greatest Generation's younger days.  In that I was disappointed. Taylor Lake CCC camp was built to a higher initial level of quality and then well maintained.  But what I found instead was a neat little story.  Of Professor Eldon Wagner and his colleague and biographer Dr. Paul Wolf.  Here they are posing - I think - on the ball field, backstop behind them.  They are both gone now but I'm delighted to help keep a bit of their story alive.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Parking Lot - Left and Right

I am as usual enjoying my time at the local tech school.  I'd say that in general both the students and instructors are a notch up from the average public school environment.  The students, at least at the manufacturing campus, are often older and have done other things in life.  Many are ex military.  The instructors likewise are often of a broad experience.  Someone coming from industry to teach has a different perspective than a person who has never ventured out of the Ivory Tower.  It's good people all around.  The teacher-student gap is much reduced and we can converse as equals.  At least I feel I can, being myself older and of varied experience.

That's not to say that there is no difference between teachers and students.  These are divisive times politically, which is why I seldom use my tag "Just Politics".  But I also want to attempt to understand the times we live in, and to share my observations.  Wisconsin may be the ultimate toss up state, and it behooves those who would have our votes to attempt to understand the sometimes peculiar nature of Badger state politics.

In the tech school parking lot there is one section - on the left - that is closer to Administration and to where most teachers have their offices.  And over on the right side, closer to the main entrance, is mostly student parking.  There is no designated parking for instructors or students so other than perhaps a bit more rust on the student's vehicles you can't really tell.  But a walk through the lot on the way to class is interesting. 

Bumper stickers.  I won't tell you which side of the lot they are from.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Talking Caves and Robots

(Or more accurately, talking about caves and robots).

Several times a year I give talks for the local Learning in Retirement program.  They are a good audience especially for the history oriented topics.

Recently I gave a talk on Forgotten Brewery Caves.  Hey, why not?  With the passing of Wayne Kroll a while back I suppose I might actually be the world's leading authority.  At least I know enough to talk for an hour and a half.

The venue:  Tap room at the Lazy Monk brewery.  Really a better place for a talk about beer than the Lutheran Church some of my previous talks have been held in.

It was a good crowd.  Too good actually.  The registration had been capped at 40, as that's all the room could hold.  There was a waiting list of another 40.  A dozen of them showed up anyway and we had to cram them into odd corners.  This might be a talk I'll repeat in the spring.

Afterwards a group of the sure footed ( we left some folks behind at the tap room ) visited The Cave of the Mad Poetess.  A brief candlelight reading of Bad Poetry was included in the tour.  Some of these folks remembered hanging out in this cave as young people, engaging in the sort of low level mischief that one would expect.  Efforts to locate specific names in the extensive graffiti were not successful. On the principal that it is never a good day unless you learn something new, we all had a good day.  A geologist in the group corrected my identification of the specific stone type in this cave.

You'd think in retirement that I'd never be busy, but just by random chance it happened that I had another obligation that meant I could not linger in the congenial surroundings of the Lazy Monk.  The first actual team meeting of the FIRST robotics team.  This of course meant that I was very moderate in my "indulging" at the Tap Room Talk.  Beer and anything school related don't go together.  Well, I think the Hockey Booster Club gets some sort of special dispensation.

The robotics team meeting also went very well but as usual I did not have time to take any pictures.  A busy season awaits.