Friday, February 28, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - Ready for Inspection

There is a detailed inspection required before you compete in a FIRST tournament. Any sharp edges?  Is all the wiring up to code?  Are there safeguards in the pneumatics systems?  Did you make weight and are you within the dimensions of the design requirements?  I imagine for the judges this is routine stuff.  In fact many of them regard it as a nice opportunity to teach the teams some fine details of engineering.

On the other hand, when the judges get a look at the bizzare machine built by Team 5826 I suspect their response is going to be something like this.....

Wish us luck.  With our high risk / high reward design it is going to be an exciting ride.  To Victory?  Eh, who knows.  To Catastrophe?  This is also a possibility.  But it will not be boring.

We get this weekend to practice and tune.  The robot loads for the tournament Wednesday night.  Updates Thursday/Fri/Saturday. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020- The Von Frankenstein Moment

Most of the odd little traditions from my earliest involvement with robotics have gone by the wayside.  What the FIRST team is building now is so far beyond the comic relief combat robots that my son and I were making twenty years ago.  But there is still one private tradition that I think will always be there, at least in the back of my mind.  The Von Frankenstein Moment*.  You know, the point at which you throw the switch and your creation comes to life.  Here, there's nothing like The Original:

This year's project has long been operational in its various prototypes and subsystems, but I kept hoping for The Moment when everything came together, and when it acquired a "life" of its own as more than a stitched together assortment of parts.

I saw the first glimpse of it when the autonomous targeting system flawlessly drove the robot automatically to the ideal launch point and then put three rapid fire shots into the highest point target.  Alas, two trials later it was firing randomly at a reflection it saw on the wall.  Or maybe Skynet was just beginning to become Aware....

Eventually of course software dialed it in and the robot seeks out its target and fires accurately.  You can even kick it around a bit, as there will be defense played in this game.  It cares not, simply re-scans, targets and carries on.

Various late season images.

Our pit area.  The media station was a joint project last year with our students and the designers at a sponsor.  It shows video (here the frame being lasered) and has nice front illuminated graphics.  We will be stationing our tireless spokesperson at this post.

This year's shirts.  Displayed on the remnants of the steel sheet we used to cut the robot parts.  I think it requires about 50 individual pieces to make this machine.

My season long campaign against entropy and lost parts draws near to its end....

* In the original literary work and most of the early films the Mad Scientist is referred to as Victor Frankenstein and the Von designation is not used.  In fact, not appropriate since Mary Shelly wrote him as being of Swiss/Italian origins, not German.  Some of the later cheesy horror films switched this to a more Germanic sounding Victor Von Frankenstein.  Guess that shows you my tastes in entertainment earlier in life....

Monday, February 24, 2020

J.A. Cobban - Almost Lost to History

When researching local history you have to remember that these were real people.  They led lives of either great or modest accomplishment.  Only a few are remembered a century later with surviving companies bearing their name.  Most fade to obscurity.  Some are now physically represented only by a few yellowing scraps of paper.  Or perhaps by a single scrap.

Here is the remains of an advertising trade card.  The front.

And the back.  Notice that this was once a rectangular card which obviously had more on the back and had some sort of background picture for the owl.  Clearly it was cut out by somebody, perhaps a child, for a scrap book.  Had they not liked owls J.A. Cobban might have been completely lost beyond a few newspaper entries and census listings.

The faint script over stamped reads:  "FARR BROTHERS DEALERS IN DRUGS CHEMICALS Stationary and etc.  NORTH EAU CLAIRE WIS.

So, what scraps of history can we assemble to remember J.A. Cobban and his patent medicine business?

Cobban is a fairly common name in the early history of our area, so I'm not sure which family this Cobban came from.  For that matter I was not able to even figure out what the initials J.A. stand for.  But I think he might be the son of a W.S. Cobban who in the 1880's ran a dry goods store....and was also part owner of the Eau Claire News where J.A.Cobban's products got frequent positive mention!  Oh, and there were print ads.  Here's one that recovers the missing text from the back of the trade card.

If J.A. was part of a commercial family he seems to have struck out on his own early.  Also to have changed lines often.

In 1874 we read:  "To the Ladies.  J.A. Cobb of Eau Claire is general agent for the King Combination Iron, combining four complete irons in one..."

There must have been some sort of interlude elsewhere because the next bit of information is from 1878 when "Mr. J.A. Cobban formerly of this city is in town canvassing for a work entitled "The Temperance Reform and its Great Reformers".  Whether he was pitching the book itself or the tedious, parched tongue philosophy of abstinence is hard to say.  If the latter then his subsequent sales of presumably alcohol laced medicine seem a bit hypocritical!

Five years later, in 1883 he has settled in to a new line of work.  "J.A. Cobban who has long been in charge of the boot and shoe department of G.B. Chapman's Store has accepted the post of Head Salesman at Culver and Ellison's".  If my theory of him being related to one of the several branches of Cobbans in the retail trade are correct then perhaps he was a black sheep of the family?  It would explain him working for others and not taking over the family business.

At last in 1884 we start to see ads for Cobbin's Tonic Bitters.  

Farr Brothers was a drug store that operated between 1881 and 1892, which fits well.

Interestingly I can also set an end date to the patent medicine business of J.A. Cobban.  A mention in January of 1888 under local news tells us that:  Dr. J.A. Cobban is convalescing from an attack of lung fever".  At about this time ads for the Bitters seem to stop.  

There is by the way no evidence that our shoe salesman/temperance worker ever attended medical school, so the adopted honorific was probably self bestowed.  But in any case his days in Eau Claire were numbered.  Perhaps in ill health: "Dr. J.A. Cobban and wife who have resided in this city for the past eight years, have removed to Augusta.  They take the best wishes of their many friends with them."

Friday, February 21, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - Digging In

Two weeks from now we will be competing in Duluth.  This is a sobering thought.  As we started this "home stretch" week we had a lot of things that sometimes worked.  We also had three pounds to lose to get under 125. Oh, and the need for at least another pound of structural support to hold the robot together.

Some odd and interesting views of the week.

Our conveyor system uses loops of surgical tubing.  You have to seal these loops.  Ideally you can do this without dismantling the whole robot.  Experiments eventually led to this solution.  Inside the tubing you put a small section of plastic pneumatic tubing.  If you melt the ends of these little bits and snug them tight with floral wire it is pretty strong even without glue.  Here's some students holding tubing over a heat gun to make these connectors.  It reminds me of marshmellows over a camp fire.

I'm always being asked for odd parts.  Sometimes I have to look in seldom frequented desk drawers.  I'm not sure what is in the box marked Problem Child but I figure it might not be a part we want to use.

Sometimes our pit set up is scatterbrained and we forget parts at home.  Not this year.  We have visitors coming in the next few days so we set the pit up at the top of the stairs so it is the first thing that is seen.  Looks nice.

This is about the maximum number you can productively squeeze around the robot.

Weight at end of day Tuesday was 124, albeit with a smidgen still needed for frame.  And some issues with the pneumatics to solve.  Hopefully our air capacity at about one gallon will suffice with careful management.

A bunch of other things happened in our Thursday session.  About 35 visitors wandered through.  We crashed the robot and broke a weld.  We, oh that's not fair I was not involved at all, a student figured out the vexing issue with our pneumatics system.  The new design pit cart doors were installed and illuminated.  A backup bar grabbing device was prototyped.

Of course I was too busy to take any pictures.  I'll do better on Saturday.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Ghosts of Walter's Brewery - Eau Claire Wisconsin

While getting ready for an upcoming talk on local breweries I happened to drive past the site of one.  And I noticed a few things I had not seen before.  First a bit of history.

The Walter's Brewery was Eau Claire's last survivor from the 19th century, finally going under for good in 1985.  But John Walter was hardly a pioneer brewer only coming to town in 1889.  He bought a brewery on the corner of Hobart and Elm street, one that had been established in 1875.  It had gone through the usual dizzying array of owners and destructive fires.  

After Walter took over the brewery part of it burned again in 1892, but in general it was a prosperous operation that expanded into a rather large establishment.

Here is a photo, probably from the 1890s, showing the employees of the brewery.  Like many such it has the men holding the various implements of their trade.  The cooper wields a hammer, the guy with the rake worked in the malting operation, I'm pretty sure the fellow holding the glass up and studying it is the brew master.  It must be John Walter holding the Big Mug.  Love those advertising signs by the way, they'd be worth good money today.

This shows the brewery at a later date.  Since the new bottling house seen below is not present I'd place this at before 1913.  The perspective is from the hill side to the east of the brewery.  This advertising tray from the 1930's gives the same view.  The brick bottling house is to the right.

The main building is long gone and now just a parking lot.  But the three story building seen on the left in the above images.  Hmmmm, lets take a closer look.

It looks to me as if this newer building housing a sheet metal company is built on top of an old foundation.  

Seen close up this is pretty rough, crude masonry.  I don't think this is from the Walter's era but from the earlier 1870's brewery that stood on the same site.

Below is the "Bottlery", this appears to be the only building that survives from the brewery.

Unless.....this is across the street and rather looks like an office.  I've read that it was a saloon with apartments.  If the latter it may have had some connection with the brewery.  Or maybe it was just made at the same time.

Of course given my interest in brewery caves I had to look about a bit.  There is a substantial hill across the street from the brewery site.  And down a little alley I see this...

Just a little one car garage but oddly built into the hill side.  Could this be a conversion of a previous cave ante chamber?  The structure looks too new...but is in such an odd location.  Some warm summer day I'll stroll by, find the owners amiably sitting out front, strike up a conversation and learn more.

(Or maybe not, there is some reason to believe that this brewery had an above ground ice house fairly early on).

Monday, February 17, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - What Week is it Now?

I have to admit it is getting a bit blurry.

We continue to fight the scale, with the amount of weight available to fix small problems as they arise being very minimal.   

We find that we need a bit of frame strengthening.  In it's initial version it slipped a bearing loose when the robot went into a vigorous turn.  Rather like a horse throwing a shoe.  But on the positive side the main function of this machine, the beam grabbing/leveling trick, seems to work surprisingly well.  Our best driver was able to nail it on his first two attempts.

We are also well along in our efforts to automate ball intake and shooting.  At least we are far enough to turn it over to software for tweaking.  Here's a few photos.  A bit mixed up and random because that's how I'm feeling these days.

This is probably final assembly.  We had plans to powder coat it but it looks as if we won't be able to spare the extra take down/reassembly time.  Or the 6 ounces or so it would add in weight!

Here's the little beam break sensor that registers when we have a ball in the conveyor system.  Much like your garage door opener.  This allows us to pulse the conveyor system just enough to move a ball into position without crowding.  

This was supposed to be a great picture.  The robot grabs the bar and auto levels it. You put a cell phone up with an angle sensor and Yes!  It reads ZERO!  But you can't see it on the screen because I'm at the wrong angle.  Trust me on this one.

And we kept slogging along.  By end of work Saturday we had the ball pickup and conveyor functional although it threw a belt periodically.  The shooter needs a new part.  The frame now holds solid and the climber still climbs, although we need to tweak a few things.  And other things are going on.  We have our scouting system started and have the pit set up for a complete remodeling.  I'll have pictures in a few days.

Two weeks and change to competition it now is possible to see interesting possibilities ahead.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Old Mill in Winter

When I posted on this burly industrial artifact last fall there were some things I did not know.

1. It appears to be not so much a milling machine as a gigantic drill press.
2. It's older than I thought.

It is by the way still sitting outside the school.  I imagine it is just waiting for the annual spring scrap metal drive before it makes one last ignomious journey.  But someone in the know told me something interesting about it.

It used to be in an old armory building that had heavy equipment in it.  It was down by the river and long enough ago that water power was still a thing.  In fact, this rugged survivor has rollers on top so that via belts it can be run by water power!  

I'm still not going to offer to buy it at scrap price and haul it home.  It's probably a century old and there's a reason why it is being tossed out.  Many reasons most likely. But if we ever encountered a Y2K, solar flare, robot apocalypse scenario and you needed something to start rebuilding your industrial base in a roots and squirrel meat based economy, boy would this come in handy.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Time Capsule - Button Box Part Three

A non button item from the button box.  This is at first glance rather jarring to the eye.  We are accustomed to having medals display the national colors of the nation issuing them.  This is a definite and intentional exception.  Take a closer look.

The front does not help much.  It's a thematic mish mash.  An angel with shield and sword, the latter now lowered.  A radiate crown suggesting the Statue of Liberty.  Bare feet striding across a curved surface that could be the face of the earth.  I'm seeing elements of Joan of Arc, The Angels of Mons, maybe the Arch Angel Micheal.

Here's the reverse, and the start of our explanation.  All the Allied Powers in World War One.  

At the end of The Great War there was a sense of unity.  So it was decided that a medal commemorating service would be issued to all Allied soldiers with the ribbon representing a blending of all the national flags, and the back listing the Allied Nations.  It's a nice touch to include Montenegro and Brazil, whose contributions were minor, and Russia who had dropped out and to some extent even switched sides.  In fact, this medal was, in the US version at least, issued not only to soldiers who fought in World War One but also in the post war Allied interventions in the Russian Civil War!

The front images had similar themes but were a bit different for the various nations.  Here's a rather racy version representing Belgium, taken from this compilation.

The subject of these Great War commemorative medals is actually complicated, as one would expect with so many war weary nations all doing this at once.  There seem to be official and semi official versions, and the supposedly uniform size and theme requirements were not always adhered to.  Some of these are quite rare and worth a bit, but an example from a major combatant nation, separated from the history of the soldier, and lacking the various "battle honor" clips you sometimes see is not much more than a historical curio.

One final thought.  Notice the image on the back of the medal.  It is an axe and a bundle of sticks.  This is the classic "fasces" a symbol indicating that a group of people, or group of nations were stronger united together than standing alone.  When this medal was issued in 1919 a wounded Italian veteran named Benito Mussolini had already founded the Revolutionary Fascist Party with this as its emblem.  In the years that followed Fascism would spread and of the nations listed on this medal only sensibly neutral Portugal would be spared the horrors of a Second World War.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - A balancing act

No, not time, money, Mountain Dew, patience.....although we balance those as well.

This year's competition has major scoring points if you and one or more of your alliance partners can reach up, grab a hanging bar, lift yourselves off the ground...and make the bar come into perfect balance.

Difficult?  Team 5826 says "Hold my Mountain Dew".

The robot has an autobalance function.  Push a button and sensors detect the degree of tilt.  And correct for it.  

Monday, February 10, 2020

Time Capsule - Button Box Part Two

Today a bit of Canadian history from the button box.   

This is a uniform button from the Canadian Militia.  You can think of this organization as being a combination of National Guard and Army reserve.  The lineage of the militia goes all the way back to the days of French rule in Canada.  A summary of militia history can be found HERE. 

I'd call this an effective design.  It's not easy to make a chubby rodent look capable of combat but I think they pulled it off.  Various militia buttons feature either a beaver or the crown as the central device.  I've seen one source that plausibly says the crown was favored in English speaking Canada, the beaver in the French speaking parts.  As to the date.....I thought 1900 give or take a decade.  When war broke out in 1914 it was realized that the militia was not much of a fighting force and it seems to have become largely obsolete at that time.  

The back of the button makes things more interesting.

P. Tait and Co.  Limerick (Ireland).  Peter Tait started a factory for making uniforms in 1852.  Two years later the Crimean War proved good for business.  Soon after that the American Civil War broke out and Tait not only sold uniforms to the Confederacy but  even delivered them on his own small fleet of ships.

Tait prospered, being elected Mayor of Limerick and later being knighted.  He handed the business over to his son in the mid 1870's.  At this point it was renamed "The Auxiliary Forces Clothing and Equipment Company".  

I suppose the buttons used could have retained the earlier company name, but it does appear my ball park dating of the item could have been off by a couple of decades.

Friday, February 7, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - Laser Day

 At last the final version of the robot is ready to come out of the virtual world.  The design has been slimmed down, swiss cheesed and simplified to the point that we appear, just barely, to be able to make weight.

And so....could it be.....?

I doubt many other FIRST teams get their robot started by hauling out a big piece of steel with a fork lift!

The laser cutter has to be programmed to "cookie cutter" out the parts in an organized fashion.  Here's the pattern.

Starting to slice.

Other sub groups on the team think they are cool.  But hey, laser guys....well what can I say?

Of course laser cutting leads to....

A surprisingly large collection of individual parts!

And a "leftovers" sheet that can be curled up into a modern art installment for the shop.

At close of day Thursday the welding had begun.  I like this photo as it captures the eerie blue light on the wall.  The peculiar shapes of the metal frame are casting their blue shadows....

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Time Capsule - Button Box Part One

My better half is interested in buttons, so of course people regularly give her batches of them.  Usually they come out of some obscure drawer, or are the collection of a recently departed family member.  Most are not of value, but that's not to say there are not interesting things mixed in at times.  A recent batch had several oddities.  Starting with these:

I've given them a bit of a clean, but in their original form they were dark grey, encrusted with stuff, and tied together with a bit of thread.  So, what do we have here?

The larger buttons show a cannon and flag.  The material is pewter, that odd conglomeration of tin and other metals, often with a fair percentage of lead.  They are rather heavy.

Notice that this is not a traditional American flag.  Below is the smaller size, it has an odd monogram.

Naturally one turns first to a scholarly work that actually is called "The Big Book of Buttons".  It has a lot of info but does not rival the internet.  Just a couple of clicks showed me several similar buttons including a grouping just like mine that was being offered for sale as "possibly Revolutionary War" era.  Hmmm.  I had my doubts.  The two styles were very different.  And what are the odds that identical sets would survive?  Also on the back there were numbers stamped.  6 on the small ones and 4 on the larger ones.  It looked like such a clean, deep strike that I doubted it was done 200 plus years ago.

Just a little more sleuthing uncovered this:

Looks pretty familiar, no?  This is a set of reproduction buttons, based on actual specimens excavated at Revolutionary war battle field sites.  They are not even from the same uniform, the larger ones being a style worn by Continental Army artillery officers, the smaller ones are from a New York militia unit. The odd monogram is a version of NY. 

They were given away on July 4th 1969 by Time Magazine as a commemorative item.  

So I'm 99.9% sure I don't have actual Revolutionary War pewter buttons here.  But still, its history after a fashion.  It is after all about a half century since they came out, and in a very momentous year.  Moon Landing, Woodstock, assassinations, etc.  

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Good Place Finale - I sort of called it.

Last week was the finale of my favorite show in recent years "The Good Place".  How on earth, or other planes of existence, a comedy about philosophy and the afterlife got green lighted I cannot imagine.

I made some predictions as to how the writers would wrap it up. 

Basically I said that the final theme would be the redemption of the erstwhile demon Michael (Ted Danson) and that the four main characters would be revealed to be angels.  That's not far from being right.

Michael tries to go through a portal that would allow him to cease to exist and to rejoin the matter of the universe in a sort of Buddhist way.  But he can't.  But through the intervention of the Eleanor character (Kristin Bell) he is allowed his ultimate dream of becoming human, with the opportunity eventually to die, reach the Good Place and then move on to what ever lies beyond.  OK, close enough.

As to the four main characters being angels, whether they knew it or not, also...close.

Tahani explicitly becomes a "Good Place architect" helping design variations of paradise.  And the other three characters go through the mysterious portal....but it is evident that they still influence human affairs as small glowing motes of light appear after Eleanor goes through.  And swirl about a human who then makes a small, good decision.

So the only question is who is God in this cosmology.  Well, nobody really.  Doug Forcett does turn up but only as an indulgent party animal.  Seems fair actually after he led a totally ascetic life on earth.

And I'm OK with this last question being left open.  The "Good Place" managers that we did get to see were a batch of benign incompetents.  Clearly they were working for somebody much higher up.  High enough that they seemed to have no clear concept.....and they were effectively angels.  So for us lesser beings its fair to just leave it an open question.

One on the other side of the portal.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - Special Report

The theory behind our robot design is that we need to reliably be able to reach the balance bar no matter what angle it is at.  Then grab it.  Then move sideways so that we bring it to perfectly level no matter where our team mates are attached on the far side of the balance mechanism which resembles a big ol' upside down teeter totter.

It has cost us time, effort and a lot of our weight allotment.  But....this is the robot's primary design function.  And it appears to work.  


Nice work by our design team, builders and videographer.  And software thinks they can automate the balance process using our onboard gyroscope/pitch/yaw sensors.

Still so much work to do, but we are getting there.