Monday, October 25, 2021

Odd things on the Trails

You put out the trail cams looking for where the deer are, and you find all sorts of other weird stuff....

Some sort of bird.  As it is getting ready to hammer on the trail cam it should be some kind of woodpecker, but the curved beak is peculiar.  Tentative ID:  Hairy Woodpecker with considerable distortion of perspective on the beak.

These people appear to be out walking their pack of wolves.

I thought this was a smallish deer, but I'm told it is actually a bobcat's butt.

Possibly evidence of Aliens. 

And it just get weirder.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Enigma - Deep Cover

Our little band of middle school cryptographers/puzzle solvers has switched over to puzzle creation mode.  The students made up a list of staff they wanted to challenge, and I added a few more.  I mean, it just makes sense to have the School Resource Officer there to be a real detective, and one of the School Councilors there in case the grown ups need consoling!  I'm particularly looking forward to having the middle school building principal taking part and have moderate hopes that the District Superintendent will make an appearance.

So, Operational Security measures are in place and I can't show you exactly what the kids are concocting.  But I can say that when I asked if they should go easy on the staff the immediate response was "Nah".

We will of course be taking the parts of the Enigma class that worked the best and/or were the most fun.  One thing we'll be discussing is how many extra hints/bits of help would be appropriate.  I guess in a teaching situation, even with the roles delightfully reversed, if they ask you have to help them.  They rather liked the idea that the Staff would have to ask their permission for limited use of the internet to solve this.

Going from student to teacher is not an easy transition.  They are children after all.  Smart children.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Brilliant Fall Photo 2021

(There are just some time/space coordinates that make perfect images.  Water, leaves, angle of the light.  This is one.  And with a rambling story to boot).

Some years back we tried to get people around our up north lake interested in a project to improve fish habitat.  The "fish sticks" program involved dropping trees into the lake to form better shallow water habitat.  With an appreciable stretch of public land on one side of the lake this could be done to good effect, with individual property owners also setting down structure if they were so inclined.  It seemed a non controversial idea, everyone likes to catch fish, no?


When we raised the idea at a lake association meeting there was little support.  Some people like to water ski and thought the tree sections, though anchored to the shore, might break loose and be a hazard.  But most people just did not want anything to change.  For them The Lake is a constant, one endless warm summer afternoon.  Let's keep it things just as they are.  Always.

Well one does not want to be a bad neighbor, so the project was dropped.  I was thinking of it one bright fall morning when out for a walk.  And on my return, saw this:

A massive oak tree had fallen in full fall glory.  Turns out the trunk had been damaged years ago and that time, insects and changing water levels had weakened it further.  Splash!  Fifty feet of fish habitat.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Strange Fish Detective

As I go here and there in the world I have occasion to hang out with DNR folks including Game Wardens.  I've fished, socialized, tippled with them.  They are good folks who have a hard job and take it seriously.  And I'd like to help.  So when I encounter the scene of a Fish Crime I try to investigate to the best of my Member of the Public capacity.

The Crime Scene, a quiet river bank.

There are not that many fish that get this big in Wisconsin, here's a perspective view:

My fish ID abilities have been flawed in the past, but this sure appears to be a Lake Sturgeon.  It looks to have been filleted on the spot.  Animals will nibble up all the tasty meat, but are rarely this tidy:

Lets see how many ways this is illegal.

1. the sturgeon season runs until 30 September.  This photo was taken 10 October, so this may or may not have been caught in the legal time slot.

2. You are allowed to only catch and keep one of these a year, it has to be a minimum of 60 inches, and you have to buy a special sturgeon tag.  Said tag has to be attached to the carcass if you leave it behind.  Nope, not seeing it.  And doing a rough estimate from the picture with my foot, I don't think this is 60 inches long.  Gracious me, that's five feet although the shark like tail does stretch them a bit.

Who would revel in the capture of such a magnificent fish, then illegally fillet it up for dinner?  I don't think referring to such a person as a Rat Fink would be excessive.  Speaking of which....

I was not exactly looking for clues when I stepped up from the river bank and onto the street.  But when I kicked at an object there I was surprised at its heft.  Hmmm....that felt like lead, and it was just about the right size for the big bottom sinkers you use fishing for sturgeon and the like.  But what an odd bit of tackle:

Rat Fink was, oh heck I guess still is, an ugly cartoon character associated with cars of the Hot Rod variety.  He was somewhat popular when I was a lad back in the1960's.  I was surprised to find him still appearing in merch.

But not a lead fishing sinker, a hood ornament.  Yep, that's him.  Guilty perhaps of bad taste but not fish poaching.

Friday, October 15, 2021

A prophetic bit of political history

Things drift in and our of our awareness and possession all the time.  Lots end up in the recycling.  A few end up in a junk drawer but in nine cases out of ten that is just delaying things.  Only a tiny fraction have any potential to be significant in the future.  To believe otherwise is the Path to Hoarderville.

Odd exceptions do exist.  Otherwise they'd not be exceptional.  Consider a playing card, presumably once part of a deck that came from an Atlantic City casino that was owned by a colorful boor....

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Enigma Five - Funny Papers

 Last week we went high tech.  This week....retro.  Spy stuff involving dead tree newspapers.

Here again is our old pal Alexandria Ottendorf.  She spends her day doing things that look non sneaky.  She reads the paper, she plays cards.  Hmmmm, but she must be up to something.



Unsurprisingly the kids love invisible ink.  They are always looking for it in most unlikely places.  So to indulge them we had an invisible ink workshop.  We tested "invisible ink pens" which use an unspecified phosphorescent material, classic lemon juice, and in a nod to our location in America's Dairyland, milk.  Various surface textures and colors also were part of the testing.  They rated each test case for stealth (can you see evidence of writing) and for clarity of each substance.  Some of course need a bit of heat to show up.

This part of the session went well.  No smoke alarms activated and some thoughtful discussion.  In fact this led to a
 side discussion.  Or, since teaching them interesting things is the main point, a core discussion.  Chemistry.  Organic versus inorganic.  What is a phosphor?  Where does the name phosphorus come from?  Would you expect lime juice to work as well as lemon?  How about whole or skim milk as compared to the 2% used in testing?

Then it was on to the main project.

You'd think that crosswords have little to do with espionage but wrong would you be.  In 1944 a British crossword puzzle editor found himself under arrest.  He had published a puzzle with various code words associated with the upcoming D-Day invasion.  Overlord, Mulberry, etc.  It was those darned kids....

It seems he was also a headmaster, and in time honored tradition asked his students to help with his work.  They concocted the clues with the dangerous answers.....from various loose lipped gossip they picked up hanging around US and UK bivouacs where troops were training for the big day! 

Bit of an object lesson there for me, as our Staff Challenge is looking very promising and I'll be having these darned kids help me concoct it!

The crossword part of the session was not as successful.  They don't know much yet and while they could work through things sans Chromebooks it took far too long to get the final word combination, which when the box was opened, was a flat out announcement that there was a special surprise inside this week.

Overall an off session.  Some kids were on, others were not.  Odd how a kid can be laser focused one week and goofing around the next.  Oh well, if I'm not pushing them a bit past their limits I'm not doing my job.  

Next two sessions will be prep for Staff Challenge.  I understand we have among others the building principle on board and the District Superintendent as a maybe.......

Monday, October 11, 2021

What the Robots have been Up To

I don't do robotics posts every week, but that does not mean there are not things going on.  This is our fall "pre-season" where we try things and people out.  It's all just putting together complicated things whether it is a working group of students or a prototype mechanism.  

The team is growing, in fact growing faster than I can really keep up.  We are a bit like the French Foreign Legion.  Recruits come to us.  We don't ask too many questions, just start training them.  Somewhat more realistically this means that current team members are inviting their friends to come aboard.    

A few random images....

The hand-eye-brain-intuition aspects of driving can only be learned by lots of practice.  Every session, even though it is perhaps six months from competition and three months before we are told what we'll be practice.  We use a variety of test bases and try to make it realistic.  In this case, push that rolling object up that ramp that you can't see, using only camera control.

Our biggest shortcoming in seasons to date has been object handling mechanisms.  So one of my personal priorities has been to get a dedicated sub team of prototypers going.  Here we have a pneumatic rotary actuator that was donated to us.  The plan was to make a simple device that could deploy a mechanism in and out of the frame perimeter, perhaps a ball intake with belts and such.  They got that done nicely.  Only to discover that the actuator had way more power than anticipated (59 foot pounds at 60 psi).  After using it once or twice as an impromptu catapult (another reasonable thing to create) it taught us something important.  The 3D printed adapter, even though it was made of carbon fiber material, was not strong enough and stripped out right away.  If we use this it will require a fancy metal adapter....

Prototyping has also been working on intake gizmos.  This wood built prototype uses special directional wheels to pull the ball to the center and then in.  The impact driver has a socket they can use to drive the hex shaft, but by end of session they were close to slapping a chain drive onto it.

Software has been huddled down of late.  The problems of figuring out the complex omni directional swerve drive are significant.  They'll get it pretty soon.

The media/pr sub team has cooked up some early T shirt designs, and is working on assorted other things.  Visitors coming in, team going on outreach visits.  Even some discussion of a musical ensemble.  Mostly to provide music for team video productions, but I did task them with learning taps for when we have the traditional ceremony to dismantle the last competition robot.  Played with tuba, two trombones and perhaps a ukulele it should be interesting.  Oh, and one of them breezed through a grant application that usually takes me several attempts and a few cuss words.

Lots more going to happen in the next month.  

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Visitor in the Watering Can

On an unseasonably warm October day an unexpected visitor. 

Our part of the world is actually pretty light on amphibians, and this little guy, or gal, had rather unusual markings.  Time to start an amphibians caught list to compete with my grandson?

Well no.  This is just a Grey Tree Frog.  Bigger than most, the survival rate past mini toad stage is pretty low.  And they can alter their colors quite impressively for a northern species.  I've seen them golden brown, lime green, and of course, grey.  The yellow highlights are pretty cool.

Just what you'd expect from a species whose scientific name is Hyla versicolor meaning "variable color".

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Enigma Four - Cache as Cache Can.

Last week when the Enigma class figured out that they needed to acquire a specific book from the library - which is adjacent to where we meet - it was a mad, disorganized dash and a surprising degree of milling about before they found it.  So, I guess that's an area we have to work on.

This week was a geocache hunt.

This was actually difficult to set up.  GPS readings are problematic inside a barn like school with a ceiling full of metal and cables.  And the extent to which I can wander about engaged in dubious looking activity is limited!

But I'm pretty good at work arounds, so clues were deployed in outdoor settings.....with only a vague sense of how long they would need to solve the entire puzzle.

The starting question, the answer to which opens the lock was:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  ________



It turns out that a couple of the kids had a passing familiarity with geocaching.  Even to the extent of knowing the lingo a bit.  When you approach the coordinates of a geocache you are supposed to look for a "beacon", some feature that tells you that you have arrived.  One kid swerved off on our trek to investigate a utility pole that had a label from Beacon Engineering on it.

Regards swerving off track I tried it a few times, purposely wandering in the direction opposite where the GPS device was leading the kids.  After the first time they stopped falling for it.

One cache was called BARK BARK.  I was hoping they'd fall for a dog reference.  Instead they noticed this almost immediately.

I did stump them for a while with a clue hidden inside a pine cone.  But eventually they had the complete set of scrabble tiles and were ready to work the five letter combination that gets 'em snacks.  Note the flip side of BARK BARK.

While we were walking in from outside I asked them for theories on how to get the code.  Several thought of anagrams, which was the correct answer.  One team nailed the five letter word just by playing with the tiles, the other team used an anagram generator to get the harder eight letter word, which was actually irrelevant.

In our peregrinations we ran into one of the assistant principals who was enchanted by the idea.  She will for sure be in the "staff challenge" version that I'll have the kids cook up.

I'm not liking the staff's chances.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Puppy Hank Again

Oddly the term "good boy" is applicable even to dogs who sometimes are less than perfectly behaved.  This is "Puppy Hank" an associate member of our extended family.  I go let him out when his owner is at work.

Hank likes to do dog things.  Jump, chew, sniff, roll in bad stuff, the usual  He is a great favorite of my grand daughter, always has been.  He characteristically has one ear that usually flops down and one that stands up.  This is within even my limited cartooning skills so Hank shows up often in our art projects. 

I guess it is a fair question to dogs think?  Well I'd say yes.  Hankster has such an intent, alert demeanor that it is impossible to imagine him as just a dull lump.  But what does he think about?

Rolling in bad stuff.  Eating dirt.  Shredding toys.  I suppose if you chose to simply be uninvolved with the problems of the world those are fairly reasonable priorities in life.

Hank is named after Hank the Cowdog, titular character in a favorite book series when our lads were young.  Perhaps a little un PC in these delicate times, but as the books are written from a dog's eye perspective some allowances might be made.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Salty Dog

Out for a walk on a magnificent fall day.  I had some business over at the High School, and on my stroll home the Marching Band was enthusiastically practicing.  That always puts a bit of spring in the step so I swung past the bleachers for a closer look and listen.  And saw this:

I thought "my gracious that's an enormous barbeque grill".  I did not recall concessions being that big a deal at the football games.  The main interest of the adult fans is watching their kids out on the field.  The main interest of the student fans is watching each other.  This area under the bleachers has probably seen enough high drama over the years to fill a shelf of YA novels.  


Something this big should be on a more substantial and permanent frame.  And what's this?

I should have gotten a close up, this is a warning sticker advising you to not get too close to a "Turning Spinner".  Guess somebody really likes to lay on the salt, which to be fair is a long term hazard.  Ah, here's the other end of the machine:

Amused as I am by the prospect of a gigantic grill with arcane warning stickers I have concluded that what SaltDogg really does is distribute salt on the frozen sidewalks and driveways that will be upon us soon enough.  The thing that puzzled me at first was the lightweight supporting frame.  You won't be pulling that around through snow and over rough ice flows.  It must mount on a pickup truck, and as the need for salt is seasonal even here in Wisconsin, SaltDogg sits around with not much to do for about 8 months of the year.

I hope.  If it turns out to be a long, nasty winter I think Dogg will be happier about it than I will.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Enigma Three - Alexandria Ottendorf

The mystery courier "A.O." has now been identified as Alexandria Ottendorf.  Surveillance cameras recently showed us this.  Hmmmm, something is going on here.

Note:  This is from an earlier photo shoot.  When I took the book home to use it in the encoding process I was appalled.  Absolute dreck.  This was such juvenile stuff I'd not put it in front of juveniles.  I pulled a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology off my own shelves and we snapped another quick photo.

First we did a quick review of simple ciphers for the benefit of students who were out last week.  You can see the decrypt.  They did this very quickly and I had hopes for another stellar session.

Next up were the Alberti wheels.  This is a quick way to encode and decode long as sending and receiving parties each have the same wheel and starting settings.

Here I made a tactical error.  They wanted this to be boys versus girls.  Well with the weather  being unseasonably warm they were squirrely to start with and so this was not a great choice.  They were at times acting like middle schoolers.  Which of course they are.  But still......

The girls sent a straight forward, albeit slightly chilling, message that Team Guy decrypted in very short order:

When Team Girl Power attempted to decrypt the message they got from the guys, well nothing came out but random letters.  For me the highlight of the day was watching one of the girls think deeply, pause a moment and say "Hey, wait a minute".  Of course what the guys had done was to FIRST ENCODE THE MESSAGE IN JULIAN CIPHER and then code it on the wheel!  Much goofball behaviour, on both sides, was forgiven for that bit of creative thinking, which again was on both sides.

Eventually they got a photo similar to the one at the top.  It took them way too long to figure out that Ottendorf was the clue, it is a type of book cipher where numbers stand for page, para, sentence, word and sometimes letter.  Which of course was what was on this bookmark tucked into page 219.  Actually Alexandria was also a clue.  Tells you to look in the Library.

The final answer, the five digit code that won the snacks, was WATER.  If your copy of Bullfinch is the correct edition you can solve it yourself.

Tiring, and a session with middle school students both at their best and at their somewhat annoying baseline.  

Friday, September 24, 2021

Brewery Ghost Eau Claire

Like pretty much any city in Wisconsin Eau Claire had an active brewing industry in the 19th century.  There were four good sized breweries and a number of smaller players.  Surprisingly, given the substantial nature of brewery buildings, there are virtually no physical remains in 2021.  In fact, until recently I'd have said none.  But then some stucco started peeling off a non descript building at the corner of Elm and Hobart....

Like the old song says, "there's something happenin' here".

This was a rough stone foundation, presumably once supporting something much bigger.  Whatever it was it had a "window".  I wonder what else is hiding under the remaining hideous modern camo.

The location has a long and shall we say heated history.  To attempt to piece it together you need to see the modern alignment of the building and compare it to 19th century images.  Just how far back was it set?  And just how accurate are these early maps and drawings?

Most of what I know about the site comes from Doug Hoverson's "The Drink that Made Wisconsin Famous".  I'll take his narrative and combine it with such images as can be found in the State Historical Society map collection.

Things on the edge of town don't always show on early maps, so the earliest depiction of the place in 1872 just shows trees.  Is this accurate?  Probably.  It was not until 1874 that a certain Michael Welter, or Wettner left the nearby Mattias Leinenkugel (Eagle) Brewery and went into business on his own.  Oddly he had Henry Leinenkugel as a partner.   Our next peek at the location dates to 1875:

This shows a building of not at all the correct dimensions, but correct in that there is no set back from either Elm or Hobart.   Interestingly there was a "Garden" one block north.  This the Olinger Garden run by a local farmer of that name since the mid 1860's.  It was practically speaking a beer garden, which may not have had a direct link to any of the various breweries operating in this neighborhood.   

The brewery then went through events common to such ventures, ownership changes and fires.  Henry Sommermeyer took over the venture in 1878.  A rather nice Birds Eye View from 1880 shows us much.

There now seems to be a large setback from Hobart street...unless the latter was widened at some point.  There is as expected a slope just as today, but that would be the case in any event.  We also start to see intriguing clues such as doors and windows.  Is this our brewery ghost building?

Hard to say, as Sommermeyer's brewery was destroyed by fire in November 1880, probably after this drawing was made.  It was rebuilt, sold to Frank Huebner who was a Sommermeyer employee, then it burned down again in 1883.

An 1888 map shows this:

Probably the same building, and with street dimensions looking pretty well defined it is hard to buy the widening of Hobart theory.  I will say that I don't trust any map of this era implicitly, well other than Sanborn Fire Maps.  Notice that the setback from Elm looks to be much bigger now.

The place burned again in 1892, although it is mentioned that it was just the wooden portions that went up.  A foundation still in situ from earlier is quite plausible. 

By this point the brewery was owned by John Walter.  He bought it in 1889 and remarkably it remained The Walter Brewery until 1985!  Now the 1897 Sanborn map comes to the rescue...

This is certainly what we are looking at, but with some real puzzlers.  The "window" seen above would seem to be looking right into the malt kiln!  It describes four floors, malting floors in basement and 1st story, grain storage second and third.  What we are seeing what would be considered the basement.  Photos of the Walter Brewery are always taken from the east corner to show the main brew house, but the malting facility with the needed vent stack can be seen clearly in this 1895 view.

There is very little written on the brewery remains.  There is a brief mention in the Eau Claire Landmark Commission website that says the foundation we are discussing is from the 1890 post fire rebuild.  That would seem to make the most sense.  But I am still just a bit suspicious that it might be all or in part from an earlier rebuild in the 1880s.  It was mentioned for instance that the 1890 fire only burned the wooden portion of the structure.  Was the foundation damaged enough that it had to be demolished and rebuilt as well?  Then there is that darned window into the malt kiln.  Was this bashed out later?   Was it not a window but some kind of flue for that big stack at about that location on the building?  If so the stack would have blocked the sidewalk!  Maybe there was a hatch in the basement level for ash pull out from the kiln on the first floor?  As I finish up these musings I note something very much like it at the base of the tower in the 1880 view of the Sommermeyer Brewery.....

Clearly I have to go take an inside look.   I figure I'll wait until the Covid situation improves a bit but certainly there will be an update and "inside information" when that happens.

Footnote.  When the John Walters Brewery finally went under in 1985 there was a brief revival under the name Hibernia Brewery.  Name aside they made mostly German brews.  They also revived the Olinger Garden one block to the north as their beer garden!  I've been there, it was nice.  Alas the obsolete physical plant was too heavy a burden and Hibernia did not survive to what might have been the better days of craft brewing.  Other than a 1913 vintage bottling house and the foundation we've explored today there is nothing left of note on the site.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Enigma Two. Ciphers and Barbarians

 Week two.  Time to get trickier....

Enigma Lesson Two 


Well now, that was not a very nice thing for Julius Caesar to say about the Barbarians!  Although it was of course quite true.  Perhaps that is why he wrote it in a special letter code.  This "Julian Cipher" was one of the earliest such codes and would serve to make written messages unreadably to casual observers.  You of course are considerably smarter than a batch of 1st century BC Barbarians, so it won’t take you long to figure this out.

 We will talk today about the easiest ways to break this kind of code, then the trickier ways it usually has to be done. 

Paper, pen, blackboard…..of course after a while people got even smarter and started to create machines to help encode and decode.  Some of these are simple and fairly well known.  Once upon a time special “Secret Agent Encoder Rings” came in boxes of cereal.  We will work with some home made versions of this device to send and receive messages to each other. 

Like everything else in the modern era these code machines kept getting trickier and more effective.  Until the code breaking machines caught up. 

Ever wonder why this course is called Enigma?  Go.


The first cipher they worked on was the famous "Julian" or "Caesar" cipher.  It is a simple 3 space rotation cipher where V becomes Y, L becomes O.  The initial message read "YOU GUYS SMELL BAD".

This led to a brief etymologic side trip into why Caesar Salad is called that and to how what was basically a nickname evolved into a title that has been in continuous use until fairly recently.  (Czar, Kaiser, etc).

All rotational ciphers can be solved pretty simply.  I taught them the Brute Force method and they were able to easily take on another cipher called Rot-13.  This cipher is still in fairly common use.  The geocaching website uses it to encrypt hints.

A bit harder challenge next, a random cipher.  I told them I'd make it a bit easier by giving them lots to work with and breaking it down into words instead of standard five letter sets.

For this they had to look at frequency analysis, which is basically how frequent certain letters are in the English language, with considerable help from the small number of one, two and three letter words that are in common use.  The message was not that important, it said something along the lines of "I will make this easier by giving you lots to work with and breaking out the words".  Which is almost a direct quote.  But, it gave them the key to use on the next cipher which was in the same code.

The answer was:  BILBOBAGGINSLASTRIDDLE.  Shockingly none of them had read the Hobbit.  My work to repair the shortcomings of modern education is far from done.  But I allow limited use of the internet and soon they were asking me:  "What do you have in your pocket?"

The combination, obviously.  Or is it?  I was mildly disappointed that none asked in a Gollum voice, but you can't have everything.  

For those coming in late, the code unlocks a treasure chest with some better grade snacks.  The kids were able to get all this done in one hour, which I think is pretty good especially considering that this is an after school class and their brains have been numbed since about 8am.

A smart and fun group.  Next week I'll challenge them a bit more......