Monday, March 30, 2020

Pioneer Breweries of Western Wisconsin - A Virtual Visit.

I was going to do a somewhat scholarly version of my "Forgotten Brewery Caves" program for the local history museum.  It likely would have been a bit less fun - and perhaps less well received - for being done in a stuffy auditorium versus the brewery taproom where I gave version 1.0 last year.

And then the Corona Virus hit the area.  So.  No live programs.

They asked if I'd be able to manage a "virtual" form of this.   Uh....sure?  Anyway I recorded commentary and sent the files off to them.  And according to their facebook page its actually going to happen tomorrow at 6:30pm, central time for those of you far afield.

Beats me how this will work. (I'm now told there will be a link to a YouTube version)  Or if it will.  But if you are so bored sheltering in place that hearing me ramble for an hour plus on "Pioneer Breweries of Western Wisconsin", well I can guarantee you'll get your money's worth.  With it, you know, being free and all.

As an aside it is interesting to compare a prepared versus live format.  In the prepared version you do have a chance to run through several times, and can re-do parts that don't sound quite right.  And it still only comes out fair to middlin' due to my cheap microphone. 

But you lose some important things. You can't see your audience, can't tell if jokes work, can't modify your pacing.  Also you lose facial expressions and gestures as communication adjuncts.  I honestly think that's about 1/3 of real communication.

Also you won't know if people are falling asleep/playing with their phones etc.  So  that there's on the plus side of things.

Tune in tomorrow evening for stories of beer, mad women, caves, home made bombs, bootleggers etc.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The J.B. Theriault Brick Yard - Chippewa Falls Wisconsin.

It was one of those weeks where, even in retirement, there were a lot of things going on. I had to squeeze in a quick run to the leaf dump.  But after I unloaded and started to drive away I saw that the pile of dirt and construction rubble adjacent to the leaf dump was covered with bits of red brick.  Well, nothing for it.  I parked, clambered up the side and grabbed a few specimens that were more or less intact.  There were several of the later style Stanley bricks, and then there was this.

I'd been looking for this one for a while.

It is you see a local brick, the only one from Chippewa Falls that I know to bear a maker's mark, that of J.B. Theriault.

Jean Baptiste Theriault - he usually went by John - came to the area fairly early.  I find mention of him working in the lumber camps and sawmills which would fit the pioneer days of Chippewa Falls.  He was probably, like many such early settlers, of French Canadian origins.

He had a varied career, at different times being a partner in a dining hall/saloon with a interesting local character named Charles Billideau.  He seems to have done well enough to have built his own "Theriault Block" building in the 1880's, and to have started a brickyard in 1890.

Here's a photo of the Theriault brick yard which was then outside Chippewa Falls, now on the suburban edge of same.

Brick yards are even worse than breweries in terms of finding physical remains.  You'd typically have a place to dig the clay, some machinery to mix and form it, one or more kilns to dry it, and a lot of flat space to set up drying racks, usually semi protected from the elements.  None of these were built on deep foundations or to last.

I'm standing here on what I assume is a long established county road looking east.  A 1910 map indicates the Theriault brick yard should be on the west side of the road.  So what is this odd foundation remnant?

And this nearby pond.  Natural or a clay pit now filled with water?

In the woods to the north there are these moss covered piles.  Alas, not brick fragments but apparently some sort of slag from the kilns.  I think they tossed spoiled batches here.

It is quite confusing.  So here's my attempt to make sense of it.

I think what I am seeing are actually the remains of the "other" brick yard in town.  It went by various names including the French Lumber Company brick yard, Goulet and Bergeron yards, and the Chippewa Brick Manufacturing Company.  They were near contemporaries and mined the same 4-8 foot wide vein of clay.  I know of no marked examples of their product, at least not yet.

Here's a 1907 "Birdseye" view of Chippewa Falls that shows the Goulet brickyard:

Theriault's establishment must have been on the other side of the road in what now is heavily worked farmland.  The detailed descriptions I have of his 8 acre facility with a "pug mill", a "Craycroft soft mud machine", a 2 acre drying yard and a capacity of 1,200,000 bricks per year....all are describing an enterprise with no lasting remnants but their bricks, and of those only a tiny fraction were marked with their name.

Neither brick yard was a long term success.  The clay and the bricks made from it were said to be of high quality but there was one key factor missing for the growth of these enterprises.  There was no rail spur to ship their product.  And make no mistake, if you are in the business of making a million plus bricks, you do not want to rely on horses and wagons.

Theriault sold his brick yard in 1914 to a man named Henneman.  The generally very gossipy brick trade publications mention only that in 1916 Henneman was about to put the yard back in working order as the price of brick had risen and there was felt to still be a 100 year supply of clay on hand.  After that I find nothing.

But there is one extant structure that recalls the days of making bricks in Chippewa Falls, and it is a short stroll from my house.

This 1889 house - I think it falls just short of mansion status - was built by Theriault at about the same time as he started his brick yard.  The owner found a few marked bricks around the place.  And one can assume that brickwork on the property was likely from his establishment.

Note for instance this highly impractical sidewalk that like all such made of bricks is prone to buckling and heaving in Wisconsin weather, making snow removal a tedious chore indeed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Another Pennant for the Minnesota Twins

Tomorrow was supposed to be Opening Day for the Minnesota Twins.  If you are not a serious fan this might not be a big deal.  But even for you passionless types I'm sure the beginning of baseball still stirs something.  It is synonymous with hope, something we could use more of these days.  And it represents renewal, rebirth.

In general American culture is very linear.  Charge straight ahead into the future, or down the busy highway, or on into the next phase of your career.  Timekeeping systems that cycle are rare, and the two that come immediately to mind - baseball and agriculture - are holdovers from our simpler past.

Oh well.  Time for baseball posts anyway.   

This was to be a season of strength for the Twins.  There might have even been a pennant - in the sense of a championship win - at the end of it.  Now, who knows, so lets just take a quick look at another pennant - in the sense of a ballpark souvenir - to distract us.

Unlike the last Twins pennant I featured (its shown here on the left) this one has no identifying marks.  Judging from the difficulty I had finding an exact match out in the jumbled world of the internet I suspect it is not a common one.  But of course most of these sorts of things are not super rare.  So here's what I can say about it.

1. Pre 1969.  It has no MLB logo and so is from the free wheeling days when small manufacturers just contracted directly with clubs.

2. Pretty darn high quality.  Notice how the red uniform sleeves and the skin colored hands are slightly different shades?  Every extra color you add to such a design adds cost and probably reduces your margins. The felt is in good shape and the lettering nice and crisp.  Somebody took plenty of care with this design.

3. Probably not much before 1969.  This is close enough to my specimen that it may have come from the same unidentified manufacturer.  Slightly different font on the team name.  And the post 1969 MLB logo.

Today's featured pennant is in good enough shape that I'd consider taking it to a Twins game and waving it.  Gently.  But until that happy day, well I'll take it off the wall tomorrow and give it a brief, gentle wave anyway.


Monday, March 23, 2020

A Service Animal for Troubled Times

This is my pal Bear the dog.  He lives across the alley.

I consider Bear to be my Emotional Support Animal.  To the extent that he thinks about me at all he just considers me to be a vaguely familiar face/smell that shows up to see him from time to time.

Bear weighs 127 pounds, which for reference is more than I weighed when I wrestled in high school.  A fair percentage of that weight is his gigantic head, which despite its impressive size seems to be entirely empty.

This makes Bear excellent company in challenging times.  He's content to have me scratch his ears while I stare into the dim, happy emptiness of his eyes.  After a while I start to get dimmer too.  The world no longer contains problems, and it diminishes in size to a warm patch of dirt in the back yard.  If I don't limit my exposure to the simplifying effects of Bear I eventually begin to desire chasing tennis balls and rolling in things with interesting smells.

I'm thinking that's enough on mopey current events for a while.  Various little research projects have been pulled off the back burner in recent days.  Some of them might be half baked and smell like something Bear would like to roll in, but that's how it is in our back yard.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Covid Cancellations

I had a fun, busy spring scheduled.  I had five different talks scheduled.  One happened before things got ugly....and it went well.

Then there was our robotics tournament in Duluth.  That was right on the cusp, with handshakes being nixed and the frankly tedious parade of giant teams who win all the awards no longer trooping up en masse to get them.  So there's that.

A few days later our school had the every two years STEM night where robot and team had a grand time showing off for all concerned.  But by then a sort of Party at the End of the World feeling had set in.  You could just sense that it was not if but when things would close down.  A few days later the cascade began.  Schools, sporting events, non essential everything...gone.

Of the four remaining talks I have on the agenda one is officially off, likely postponed to fall.  Another I'm working to convert to a "virtual" format.  The final two are in limbo.  I figured just maybe things would quiet down in April but that is looking dubious.  The first case of covid-19 was reported in our community yesterday morning.

Even the annual archaeology trip to Vindolanda is in peril.  I'm fine with a couple of weeks of open air work, but when pubs are closed in Ireland then the English speaking world is taking this very seriously.  Also of course, at the current time there is no way to get across the Atlantic ocean without a paddle.  I did manage to sneak over in 2010 when an exploding volcano halted all trans Atlantic flight for a while, but I see fewer windows of opportunity this time around.

We actually flew over it on the way back.  It was way more impressive than this bucolic scene would have you believe.

My to do list is skimpy.   

Finish our taxes.  Like Death, they are certain.  Unlike death, they have an April 15th filing deadline.  While I'm feeling all official there's also a census form on the kitchen table.  Several writing projects that I've been dawdling over will go forward, probably demonstrating why I was luke warm about the subject matter in the first place.  And, if we can avoid infected people successfully, we are planning a few days each week up north with the grand kids.  Understandably the prior child care/preschool schedules have been blown up along with everything else and this is a nice opportunity for us.

In the end all will be fine.  There is a sense of shared community and a modest reduction in political rancor these days.  

And my family will be fine.  Wife and I are expendables.  Oldest and his clan live in superb northwoods isolation.  Youngest kid is in Milwaukee, which is getting weird, but he has his sense of humor.  Also a girl friend who is a neurobiologist working with rat brains.  I figure she'll get the both of 'em in good with our New Rodent Overlords.

And the middle kid?  I know I should worry about each of them equally, but there are just so few possible Post Apocalypse scenarios in which he does not emerge as a highly successful fur clad Warlord ruling over the remnants of human kind.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


Spent the first few days of Covid-19 Crisis at the cabin.  No particular reason, its not as if we felt safer there.  We just had not been up for a while due to the bustle of robotics and so forth. and grandkids to hang out with!

It was not exactly a Quarantine....I'm calling it Cabin-tine.  There could well be more of this in the months ahead as the situation is changing and could stretch out to the summer months.

It was not unpleasant.  After all Generation Two was able to work remotely.  And Generations One and Three had nothing better to do than amuse each other!

The usual, well usual for us, play items were deployed.  Rice, excavator and giant tarantula.

Here and there around the cabin are various cameo appearances by Gold Bug, an inhabitant of the Richard Scarry Busytown Universe.  I'd gotten quite tired of having to find him on every page through three of my own kids...and it was a chore through GK#1, but I think I have one more round in me if necessary.

It is difficult to say if the world up there was different.  It tends to be a bit quieter under all conditions.  But with fewer vehicles going past on the road the deer did seem a bit bolder.  They had some tender new greenery just peeking up here and there and a herd of them trekked past the windows regularly.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Pandemics and Me.

Like all of you I am being inconvenienced by the corona virus pandemic.  Well, that's hardly fair.  I'm being inconvenienced but a lot of people are having their paychecks, retirement accounts and small businesses severely tested.

This too shall pass, although nobody knows exactly when.  Everyone hopes that days of sunshine and warmth will cause the virus to slink off the stage.

There's a lot of anxiety out there.  More than I remember in the previous such incidents.  Oh yes, this is not the first time I've been around when the First Horseman is supposedly galloping into town.

I have vague memories of polio.  This now extinct disease was once among the great terrors of parenthood.  It hit young children.  It paralyzed them.  They died or lived in iron lungs.  In its own way this was far scarier than old people dying.  I would jump in front of a bus for my grandchildren.  I would do the same for yours.

I recall when still very young hearing that you should not run through a water sprinkler on a hot day.  Because that caused polio.  At the time this was just the lingering "after rumor" from an earlier era where it was only vaguely understood that the virus could be water borne.   I might have gotten the first inactivated polio vaccine in the late 1950s.  I do remember getting the oral "attenuated virus" vaccine when it became available circa 1961.  There was a tiny paper cup half full of pink liquid.  I was in the basement of a school.  I swigged the stuff down and wondered why it did not taste much like medicine.

My next brush with Pandemic was in 1976.  A strain of the H1N1 influenza appeared out of nowhere and killed a military recruit in Fort Dix New Jersey.  It was feared that this was the same strain as had caused the great 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic that had killed unimaginable numbers of people.

Then President Gerald Ford took action.  A vaccine was rolled out.  His own sleeve was rolled up, and he publically got vaccinated.  I did too, in the student union of my college.  I remember very little of this.  Just standing in line.  And that the student union building was so aesthetically atrocious that it offended my sensibilities even at a time when I  sported large sideburns and wearing way too much polyester....

The Swine Flu pandemic never got off the ground.  Did the vaccine turn the tide?  One hopes so, as it had a legacy of - still controversial - causing a number of cases of vaccine related paralysis.

Since then the science has gotten better and the general nature of mankind has gotten sillier.  

I don't know if we are over reacting this time around.  As in 1976 it is an election year, that hardly helps the situation.  But everyone now is taking this seriously and it is encouraging to see the country united in this effort.

Hope you are all well prepared to ride this out.  Me, I've got some backlogged writing to do and a few books I need to get onto.  Several speaking gigs are or will be cancelled but they can be done another day.  Digging in England in May.....not looking too great at the moment.  Betting on a swift and effective response from the NHS.  Dubious.

But having shaken off a few non Covid-19 maladies this winter I'm doing great.  And I've laid in a supply of decent beer.  I can live on ramen noodles if necessary.  But life is precious, uncertain and always too short to drink bad beer.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Seasons Turn

Spring is in the air.  Hopefully it comes on warm and soon to help dispell coronavirus if that indeed is even possible.  In the meantime...

Emptying out pockets before the jeans go down the laundry chute.  Guess robot season is over.

We've started running maple syrup out to a farm that processes it for us.  They also took in a family member's chicken last year when it started loudly crowing every morning.  As you can see not every instance where you tell kids that an animal has "moved to a nice home out on a farm" are actually bald faced fibs.

With many plans for speaking and traveling all uncertain today I'm feeling a bit unfocused.  I'll try to gear up for regular Detritus of Empire postings again but the gas tank is a bit low at the moment.

Stay well.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - Moving In (?)

Just a few days after our tournament appearance we had to get the robot and team up and running again.  It was STEAM night at the high school, an event that happens every two years.  The robot was ready.  The team did their best - and it was quite good - but we had a number of members absent due to illness.

It was a very busy night.  We set up in the cafeteria and were showing video, shooting balls up at the target, chatting up prospective team members.  To be honest I was too busy to take many pictures.  We even challenged the Army bomb disposal robot to a race but they declined.  

More importantly we had a nice opportunity to show off to both prospective sponsors and to the school administration.  Regards the latter, the high school just finished a new addition dedicated to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.  Well by golly I think we got all those covered.  But so far we have not been formally offered a place in it.  Looks like they have room....

I proposed that we take our team flag and have the robot slam it down in the middle of the floor claiming it for The Robot Empire.  That was considered amusing by the team but perhaps a bit much.  So we just tried to make our case.

Regards potential sponsors we simply drove up to their tables and extended the robot's climbing mechanism to its full height.  Which deployed this sign:

If that did now sway them we backed the robot up a ways, took aim and launched this at them:

Time to relax, get everyone healthy.  We will have some sort of end of season social occasion in the weeks ahead.  And then...


Monday, March 9, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - Your battery is running low

After the qualification rounds are done there is a break for teams to get lunch and in the case of those who are not moving on, to start packing up the pit areas.  By that time I was exhaused and had snared a chair from one of the judge's stations.  I just plopped myself down, feeling waves of gratitude from my tired legs.  Raising my eyes I saw this video display above a nearby pit.  The caption reads:  "Your battery is running low".   Gee, ya think?

We ended up winning 2 out of 3 on the second day of the event.  Really not bad with a robot that was coming apart at the welds.  This gave us a middle of the pack finish that I consider fine for a rebuild year.  A few random images...

Shortly before the event we discovered that our intake wheels did not grab the ball very well.  This was because when you run the machine on carpet - which the playing field has - as opposed to the wood we have at build HQ , there is a difference.  145 pounds of robot sinks into the carpet.  A 6 ounce foam ball does not.  This web of surgical tubing was a five minute fix that worked great.

Robotics team mascots fascinate me.  But sometimes themes clash.  This year the game had a superficial Star Wars connection.  The team above is called the Wrench Warmers.  Hence the baseball unis.  And the gigantic heads on the guys to the right.  The guy left and forward is wearing a storm trooper mask.  Our head scout, a lad who is also a stand up comedian, stopped by and said he hoped their robot shot better than the storm troopers.

Also in the Star Wars theme, the back of our team shirts listing our sponsors.  All the same font size, as we dearly appreciate them all and equally, but the shorter names being placed further out in the Galaxy Far, Far Away gives the same effect.

It was a draining experience.  We fought through difficulties and learned a great deal.  Being largely irrelevant for mechanical matters and entirely so for software I had a lot of opportunity to converse with other coaches and teams.  Despite having the main drive system near total collapse 5826 never gave up.  At the end they pulled the "H-drive" system that allowed left/right sliding drive.  It was jammed and impairing all movement.  This made us very vulnerable to defenders who could push us out of our firing location with impunity.  Well, Avis Automata is not gonna be impugned, no sir.

Deep inside the robot where the perpendicular powered wheels used to be there is now a black object on the twin pneumatic pistons.  This is what I called the Stompy Foot, a metal box mummy wrapped in friction tape.  In theory we could set up, drop the foot and see if those defenders could push 150 pounds of weight supported by a grippy brick pressed down under the center of our robot.

Alas for the demonstration of their ingenuity, while the team was able to quickly build install and get inspector approval for the device it was not quite ready in time for our last match.  We'll keep this little secret - well apart from the closed world of the internet - for future designs.

Friday, March 6, 2020

FIRST 2020 Tournament report 2.0

The mechanical difficulties we had yesterday were largely resolved today.  That of course is why there are practice days.  Many features of the robot performed above expectations although brilliant driving had much to do with that.  Oh, we won some and lost some but generally they were close losses and spectacular wins.

But over the course of the day people started to figure out that we were shooting accurately and that it was a really good idea to prevent us from reaching the end game zone.  So they started to hit us.  Hard and often.

Recall that we have a robot made of sheet steel.  I'm told we had several people visiting our pit ask us in puzzlement why we powder coated our (presumably aluminum) robot black.  Well after a while we started having issues with the frame warping and bending.  We displaced one wheel in a match.  And then, in a match were victory was near....disaster.  We clobbered three of our four wheels, could hardly move and could not escape a zone where we incurred penalties.  Cool concept meets harsh kinetic reality.

So what do you do when all of your wheels are basically shot, the frame is buckling and you have exactly one pound margain to work with on weight?

This photo is blurry because all concerned are working with a dispatch that would have served them well in the early part of the season.  Swap all four wheels.  Bolt in a section (0.6 pounds) of aluminum angle bracket.  Get reinspected.  Done in under an hour and, we hope, ready for the first match of the day tomorrow.

I'm feeling considerably more optimistic now than 24 hours ago.  We have debugged a lot of issues, really the sorts of things that should and would have been detected and fixed weeks ago had they applied themselves a bit more.  The machine seems solid and even with our 2-4 record we are middle of the pack in the competitive field, because we are probably the best climber in the competition and are picking up bonus points for that.

And we've had more fun and learned more that 2-4 would suggest, so a good day.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

FIRST 2020 Tournament report 1.0

We made it though inspection in record time, somehow being one pound under the weight limit.  There have been years where we have struggled all through the Thursday practice day without getting the robot on the floor for a match.

This year it has been interesting.  Many small problems have limited our performance to date.  With one exception each has been solved in turn.  The things that we though would work work better than expected.  One area we figured would give us trouble has been more trouble than expected.

Well that's how it goes.  If anyone is interested in following our matches in real time here's the link:

It gives the times and should have a link to live feed.  Later in the day the matches will also be archived.

Wish us luck.  We'll need a little!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Fall and Rise of R.O.B. the Robot - FIRST 2020

On Sunday we had everything working well.  So for Monday nothing was on tap other than a few minor issues moving an electronic component to a safer location.  Somehow things went badly.  Very badly.  As in nothing much worked anymore.

Tuesday was the last chance to fix things.  Several of us coach types turned up early to peer at the robot and ponder various courses of action.  Not to actually do the work mind you, but to consider the nature of the issues and how to address them.

For me that was a couple of hours, mostly in my case spent organizing tools and cleaning the shop.  When the team showed up I went home.

When I returned two hours later the robot was happily sitting there with a sign on it that said:  Don't Touch.  

They apparently had fixed all the issues.

R.O.B. the Robot (not sure what the acronym really means) looks happy.  Let's hope he stays that way for a few days.

End of build season.  Competition ahead.  Regular updates of course.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Hill 80 Revisited

It has been almost two years since I helped excavate the World War One battlefield site of Hill 80 in rural Belgium.  I gave a talk on it in November 2018, timed to be as close as the schedule would allow to the exact moment that the guns fell silent in 1918.  

Recently I offered to reprise several of my talks for the local community education program as a three part Archaeology Series.  Yesterday I revisited Hill 80.

Good turnout, its always gratifying when the limiting factor is size of the room.

This was a noon hour session so we did have to mix a light lunch with a heavy topic.

I was able to use new material this time, including a variety of great photos of items conserved post excavation.

And this time around I could report publically the name of a soldier - one of 120 lost soldiers recoved during the dig - who had been definitively identified by name.

Rest in Peace Albert Oehrle.  A Bavarian whose pre-war occupation was listed as "Gardener".  He enlisted in the initial wave of enthusiasm in 1914.  His military career was short.  His regiment was thrown into the desparate First Battle of Ypres.  Most of these new recruits were only partly trained.  Many were very young.  In Germany this is remembered as the Kindermort.  Literally this means "the death of the children" but it is also a reference to the New Testament "massacre of the innocents" carried out by Herod after the visit of the Magi to Bethlahem.

Albert Oehrle was 17 years old.   

Sunday, March 1, 2020

FIRST Robotics 2020 - Practice, Practice

Our last weekend of work.  The robot heads off to the tournament in Duluth in about 72 hours.  We'd like to be at a state where everything is rock solid reliable.  It's not, and the only way to get there is to keep practicing, find out what does and does not work, and fix what you can.  A few pictures and explanations.

The robot has major mechanisms that are pneumatic.  That is they need compressed air.  Sure we could force the onboard compressor to keep topping off the storage tank.  But for practice purposes why not just run an air hose up from the shop downstairs!  Here we are topping off at the robot filling station.  Our climber actually works quite well but its success is somewhat dependent on the exact equipment we have to climb on and on the variable abilities of our alliance partners.

In the many photos you've seen of our build space you can see big wooden rafters and pillars.  And more to the point, a 110 year old wooden floor.  The tournament is run on a carpeted floor.  So it is time to fulfill a long time fantasy.  Take over the school cafeteria and throw stuff around.  In this case launching those yellow balls into the target.  We got it working pretty well.

Here we have removed the padded bumpers seen in the above shot.  That's because we weigh in without them.  This is the robot just prior to going on the scale.  Can we keep it under 125? about a pound.  

Perhaps there are some things you simply can't prepare for....