Friday, February 26, 2021

Time Capsule - Civil Defense

The basement workshop has needed attention of late.  Lots of legacy robotics stuff, Barbie Jeep parts and suchlike - must go in order to make space for new robotics components.  I imagine in a few years those will be obsolete too.  It's the way of technology.  Sic Semper Recyclo.

Plenty of oddities have turned up including this gem.  I actually can't call it a mystery,  as I know why it was down there.  As to it's earlier story, difficult to say. 

It looks like, and in fact is, a Geiger counter.

These used to be somewhat commonplace items, but now you mostly see them in old movies.  The staccato clicking when it is held up and waved around was the universal sound of Nuclear Dread back in a day when the prospects of a US/USSR holocaust were on the minds of all.

Here's a few small details that help us pin down the history of the item at hand.

Universal Atomics does not appear to exist in 2021.  I guess if I were their PR department I'd have suggested a name change a long time ago.  The parent company Universal Transistor Products Company is enigmatic.  It is still listed in Delaware as an "INACTIVE AGENT ACCOUNT".  I find other mentions of it as an active concern and as a "FOREIGN BUSINESS CORPORATION".  This degree of opacity has a rather CIA/SpookCorp vibe to it.  Perhaps their HQ is under a volcano on some remote island.

A small plate on the unit suggests that it contains a RADIO-ACTIVE SOURCE.    You wonder what sort of less subtle warnings would have to go on it today.  Interestingly my understanding of Geiger counters and what info I can locate suggests that there is no radioactive material built into them, just inert gases that generate a charge when high energy particles cross them.

Geiger counters of course refer to the man who invented the technology that went into them, a certain Hans Geiger.  His story is fairly typical of German scientists of that era.  It's complicated.  Before WW I he traveled and corresponded freely.  He did graduate work in Manchester England and helped his boss, Ernest Rutherford, win the Nobel prize.  

A keen mind able to figure out the trajectory of very tiny objects would be expected to excel at helping plot the course of larger ones.  So Geiger served as an artillery officer in the German Army from 1914 to 1918.  Who knows, he may have directed some of the shells we dug up at Hill 80.  His health suffered from the effects of trench warfare but post war he went back into active research.  He on the one hand signed a letter objecting to Hitler's policies regarding academia.  But he also dabbled for a while with efforts to develop a German atomic bomb program.  He survived the battle for Berlin at the end of the war but died before the tumultuous year 1945 was over.

And what came after?  The Cold War.  Russia picking the bones of the German rocketry and atomic programs to build a counterweight to the Manhattan Project.  Creepy, dystopic black and white SciFi movies.  Red Scares and McCarthyism.  Hot wars in Korea and other points of conflict between the two great powers.  The production of millions of Geiger counters for Civil Defense....

For those with an interest in more detail, I can say that this particular model came into being, as I did, in 1957.  It was made for about two years and is unusual in that it had a yellow plastic case; most models made by other companies being metal.  

Eventually the threat of nuclear Armageddon receded, and the electronic components in these counters deteriorated.  In the 1980's lots of them were marketed to assorted hobbyists, including those hoping to prospect for uranium.  After sitting in some Civil Defense shelter for decades I suspect this specific unit ended up at a rock and mineral show, something one of my sons used to frequent.  He's much more able technically than I, and as he has not gotten it working I will just keep it around as a colorful artifact of an anxious past.

Addendum.  After this post was finished I was idling about and watched an old episode of "Half in the Bag", the boozy movie review show put out by the mad geniuses at Red Letter Media.  (It's not for everyone, mad genius can often be offensive).  And what do you suppose I spied in the background of one of their intentionally cheesy sets?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Dr. Towns Cures Epilepsy. And a bunch of other stuff.

This post will only make sense if you first read my admittedly lengthy history of the W. Towns Medicine Company.  The business meandered through 65 years and four locations, and that tends to leave behind a few artifacts.

In my initial post I discussed the first medicine of Wyman Towns, his Vegetable Blood Purifier.  This was an 1870's and 80's product line, although I still find it listed in an 1897 wholesale drug catalog alongside Towns' Cough Killer, Towns' Healing Snuff, and Towns' Rheumatic Liniment.  No mention of the product that would raise them above the status of small time, small town medicine company, Towns' Epilepsy Cure.

The Epilepsy Cure dates from at least the mid 1890's.  It is mentioned in an 1896 advertisement and from about this date the "pitch" steers partially away from the generic "chronic and nervous diseases" line.  Below is a preserved specimen of the box.  It is from the Fond du Lac period of the company and presumably pre-1906.  After the Pure Food and Drug Act you would not have been allowed to use the term Cure.

Notice that it was good not only for epilepsy, but for opium addiction, hysteria, sleeplessness and alcoholism.  Ah and that old standby, Errors of Youth.  The hint of venereal disease has carried over from the Blood Purifier era.  The material printed on the right is also fascinating.  Who knew that bathing the spine with two or three gallons of cold water had some impact on epilepsy?  

Here's a side by side comparison of the Cure and Treatment versions from Fond du Lac.

Notice that Dr. W. has vanished from the embossing.  This makes me think the bottle on the right was actually quite a bit later.  Wyman was said to still be alive when the company moved operations to Baltimore circa 1909.

Here's the Baltimore version.  It seems to be the least common.

Exactly when Milwaukee fits into the chronology is unclear.

This is not a comprehensive collection.  There are also aqua versions of some of these.  They are less interesting visually but probably a whole lot easier to photograph.  There is also a variant with straight line embossing and no city listed.  Perhaps in all the moving back and forth there were times when even Dr. Towns, and his sons who succeeded him in the business, did not know where they were operating out of!

Mind you I make no apologies for Towns and his deceptive marketing.  But if one is trying to be scrupulously fair, which the American Medical Association was not, there could have actually been some therapeutic benefit to this stuff.  Bromides are sedatives.  In sufficient dose they likely would help with "sleeplessness".  And regards alcoholism and opioid abuse it is still common practice to use sedatives, albeit modern ones like benzodiazepines, to help ease withdrawal.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Dr. Towns casts out the Demon Epilepsy

It's odd how some stories unfold over many years.  In the curious tale of the Dr. W. Towns Medicine company my starting and ending points are separated by more than three decades!

I have been interested in archaeology and local history for many years, and "back in the day" we used to excavate trash pits and privies from the 19th century.  Circa 1987 I dug up this bottle in my town of Chippewa Falls.  

It is a nice item,  which by style and by other items found seems to be from the 1880s, although  occasionally older items would kick around a while before being discarded.   At the time I was probably the leading expert on 19th century patent medicines from Wisconsin and I'd never seen one of these.  In fact, I've also not seen one since.  But Dr. W. Towns was fairly well known for his other products, with assorted Epilepsy medicines being the main business of his company.  It's quite the tale, and only now in 2021 am I getting closer to a definitive history.

Wyman Towns appears to have been born in 1837.  The 1860 census lists him as being 27 years old and residing in Oasis Township, Waushara County Wisconsin. * There are only a few hundred people living in this isolated township today, and in pioneer days it must have been even fewer.  So his early life is obscure.  The next trace of him is found in this news article/ad from the Wisconsin State Journal (Madison) of 08 July 1875:

This appears to near the beginning of his patent medicine career, as it refers to introducing his "Celebrated Vegetable Blood Purifier".   George Schlotthauer incidentally, ran the Barber Shop and Bathing Establishment at the Park Hotel in Madison in 1871.  This might have been renamed The Lake House by '75, as his 1886 obituary mentions him as the proprietor of The Lake City House.  In my next post I'll talk about Towns' epilepsy medicines at length.  Oddly baths turn up there as well....

In any event, by 1875 W. Towns has moved to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and has started what would be a distinctive feature in his career, holding office hours at various hotels.

The 1875 reference while quite specific, is just about all I know about Wyman Towns for the next 15 years.  The 1880 census has him living in Fond du Lac.  And he is known to have a couple of sons including a Wyman Jr. born in 1878.  The next traces of him historically begin circa 1890, and interestingly link him to Chippewa Falls.

From my survey of available period newspapers it appears that 1890 was about when Dr. Towns began aggressively traveling to pitch his medicines, and that Chippewa Falls was one of his earliest stops.  (nearby Menomonie was also noted in 1890 articles).  Eventually his network of stops for personal consultations grew across the Midwest.

So far it seems fairly benign, and in keeping with what many other practitioners were doing.  Dr. Towns is described in 1896 as " elderly gentleman of good appearance".  But there was a disquieting side to this business venture, one that was not apparent to casual scrutiny.

Although his company would soon focus on epilepsy treatments it's earlier incarnation was oriented towards "chronic disease" and blood purification.  This was often code for venereal diseases real and imagined.  And a bit of this carried over past the turn of the century when the Dr.  W. Towns Medical Company (incorporated 1905) switched over to a largely mail order concern.  I've had a chance to peruse one of their questionnaires from 1906, and it is rather creepy.  There are plenty of questions about odd colors to your tongue and whether you have bad breath, but the query that is given the largest blank space for answers is:


You wonder if Dr. Towns was just a nosey voyeur, but if his response to one such questionnaire is representative he did have a kind of pompous sincerity about him.  

"I am no longer a young man.  My years have been spent in the treatment of this one disorder.  What the future holds in the way of reward or punishment I cannot know - but this is certain - I have too honorable a name in the world to cloud it with deceptive or dishonorable practices.  If I have been fortunate in securing my share of this world's goods it has been solely because I have been successful in curing the most stubborn and chronic cases of epilepsy....I have never taken a dollar that I have not honestly earned.  I never shall so long as I live."

In the first few years of the 20th century the Dr. Towns Medical Company went nationwide.  It's ads turn up in papers everywhere.  And the above sentiments aside, its business practices seem to have had a nasty streak to them.  Like all such outfits they accumulated customer lists.  These poor souls, suffering from epilepsy - which had considerable stigma back then - or whatever other maladies were hinted at; had their names later sold to other charlatan firms once the Towns company was done with them.  And you thought this sort of thing was only invented in the Internet Age!

But the prevailing cultural winds were against them.  1906, only a year after the company was incorporated, saw the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act.  This was landmark legislation, that demanded publication of things like alcohol and opioid content, and banned the use of some words like "Cure".  

This had been building for a while.  The Pure Food part of it was inspired by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) that documented horrendous conditions in the meatpacking industry.  And the sections that eventually destroyed the patent medicine industry were a direct result of the exposes of journalists such as Samuel Hopkins Adams, who published a series of articles in 1905 called The Great American Fraud, laying bare many of the shocking abuses of both business models and products in the quack medicine world.

Then the American Medical Association weighed in.  For years they had been publishing articles in their Journal that documented the abuses of the patent medicine industry.  These articles were collected in pamphlet form, then eventually in a two volume set called Nostrums and Quackery, published in 1912 and 1921.  It is encyclopedic and scathing.  And it has much to say on the W. Towns firm.

(Note, I am including some information that exists only in the original files at the AMA Headquarters; I made a brief visit there years ago while my family went up to the top of the Sears Tower!)

In 1910 a letter from the Fond du Lac Medical Society to the AMA states that "Wyman Towns has no medical education, is not licensed, has no place in the American Medical Directory and has gone to Baltimore, Maryland, where he goes about from town to town as a street faker claiming to cure fits".  Ouch.

The Epilepsy Cure had been downgraded to a Treatment by then, and was analyzed on several occasions.  It was found to contain ammonium bromide, salt water and small amounts of alcohol and flavorings.  Ammonium bromide actually does have some efficacy at treating seizures, but has a very narrow window between control and nasty side effects.  One of which incidentally was impotence, so perhaps that whole Indiscretions problem got cured to boot.**  Barbiturates, the first really effective seizure control medication, came along in 1912, and were probably included in later recipes of the Towns medication.

Wyman Towns passed away in 1915.  He seems to have been held in such low repute that he does not merit an obituary in Fond du Lac where he is buried.  The company implausibly soldiered on until the late 1930s.  With it being exclusively a mail order business by then it is hard to track its actual location, as mentioned it had moved from Fond du Lac to Baltimore.  It then moved back to Milwaukee, but appears to have also had a presence in Puerto Rico.  I suspect the latter location was something of a dodge to evade the tightening regulatory environment Stateside.

One of the last traces of the company I've found interestingly loops it back to the beginning of our story.  

It's a humble little ad in the Chippewa Herald Telegram from 5 March 1931.  It is the usual stuff, but interestingly makes the claim that a citizen of Chippewa Falls took a single dose of Dr. Town's Epilepsy Cure - oh, I mean Treatment! - in 1874 and had not had a seizure in the subsequent 50 years!  Clearly there was some connection between Wyman Towns and my home town.  Perhaps he had friends or relatives up this way but given the enigmatic character of the bearded old faker I'll never know more than that this seems to have been an early market for him.  Perhaps this accounts for the presence of the Blood Purifier bottle, which dates from the days of his initial foray into patent medicines.

Next time, we'll look at more bottles and graphics from Dr. Towns.


* In an earlier article on Wyman Towns I speculated that he had emigrated from Canada.  With the benefit of new information I can say that this seems to be incorrect.  There were additional men with this name in Winnipeg and in Grand Forks Dakota Territory (now of course North Dakota).  An unusual name that is not as uncommon as you'd think.

** In the Second World War soldiers would mutter darkly about bromides being added to their wine ration so that their time on leave would be less fun and they'd be less likely to go AWOL.  Obviously we're talking about the French Army here.

On a less racy note, because bromide compounds cause one to be a bit slow and sedated, a foolish, simplistic statement has come to be called "a bromide", as it is the sort of thing somebody might say when dosed up on them!

Friday, February 19, 2021

Fishing 2021 - Thinking Small. And I don't mean smallmouth bass.

The days are just a bit longer and the temps decidedly less frigid.  I'm thinking about fishing.  And as mentioned in a prior post, I'm thinking small.

I've started to assemble my kit for Microfishing, the bizarre pursuit of finny critters too small to bite on conventional tackle.  Oh, I had a few things already that might have served.  These small ice fishing jigs for instance worked very well on Creek Chubs.

But those are grossly oversized for serious microfish.  Good grief some of those hooks are as big as a penny!  So I ordered something.  From Japan obviously.

These hooks are tiny.  How tiny you ask?

Because nobody would want to, or in most cases be able to, tie these onto a line, they come pre-tied on a wisp of nylon line.  It's the sort of thing you have to handle very carefully.  Not because you might hook yourself - I'm not sure you'd even notice - but because these would be very easy to lose.  I am still looking for the ideal Microfishing tackle box.  Clearly it would be pocket sized, but has to also have room for my best pair of reading glasses!  

Looking forward to posting pix of fish small in size yet great in gallantry and guile in the months ahead.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Symphony of the Roboteers

I've gotten to know many of the students on the FIRST robotics team.  Almost half have been alumni of middle school programs I've run.  We are starting to get siblings of earlier team members, some of whom have been on the periphery of the team for years.  And there's nothing quite like the intensity of build season to get to know people.  So much time and energy, so many triumphs and setbacks.  So I have a passing interest in what they are going to do going forward.  When I asked one of the soon to graduate kids about post HS plans he said he was going to be a full time music teacher.  From the instrument involved I'm guessing classical genre.  He's presumably pretty good although A: I've never heard him play, and B: I'm living evidence that you don't have to actually be good at something to be an effective teacher.  This got me thinking on the connections between robotics and music.

It's not a new observation on my part.  Why I've mentioned a few times that schedule conflicts between robotics and assorted music programs have been frequent annoyances.  Marching Band in the fall has kept us from doing much pre-season prep.  Every two years we have lost half the team during a critical phase of build season for a one week Music Department trip somewheres. Yes, music and robotics have more than a casual connection.

But why?  And what sort of music best explains the convergence?

On the most simplistic level reading and playing music has something in common with programming.  You need to understand the language.  You need to coordinate things with precision.  It's not good to have the trombones clobber the flute solo or to have the pneumatics trigger at the wrong moment and lift your robot clear off the ground.  Timing is crucial in both situations.

But that's not a full explanation.  Music groups and robotics teams are both subcultures in the larger school ecosystem.  Each attracts those whose abilities and interests are just a bit different from mainstream.  They find like minded peers.  They are among their own kind.

I'm not particularly musical.  I have styles I like.  Classical.  Early '70s "outlaw" country.   I have styles I don't like.  Without commenting on its - presumptive - artistic merits I find the many flavors of Rap to be discordant racket, and if you actually listen to the lyrics much of it is not material appropriate for high school and middle school ears.  On this basis I've used my seldom invoked powers as Robot Overlord to nix use of it in team video productions.  At their age I lived in a neighborhood where crime, violence and racial discord were prevalent.  Trust me, it ain't that great.

I think if there is one style of music most attuned to robotics it would be another that I don't find particularly engaging, although I have no objections to it otherwise.  Jazz.  To the extent that my non musical self can appreciate it the premise often seems to be a base structure from which elements can stray off and then return.  It captures the free form, semi-structured improvisation that makes the best engineers.  On our team we are not trying to train the next generation of unimaginative cubicle drones.  We hope to bring up a cohort of much needed creative minds who will go out and do amazing things.  Things that like the robots they've built, sometimes succeed or fall short in ways that pedestrian minds would not have predicted.

And how are we doing?  It's still early days.  I think the first of our pioneer crew is now graduating college.  Or not.  Along with the people pursuing engineering degrees - and one going into music - we have others who will be as mentioned teaching music.  Or playing in that garage band in a neighboring community.  Or, in the case of another pursuit where timing and improv are key, driving truck while waiting for the big break in Stand Up.

Here's a video that expresses things in ways I can't manage with words.  Not really jazz so much as Electronic Music.  Don't be fooled, behind the robots performing there are some extremely talented programmers, mechanical builders and someone with a sense of whimsy.  I wonder where they came from?

Monday, February 15, 2021

Rat, Snake and Fox

We've always enjoyed having our up north cabin, but once the grandkids came along it got way more fun.  They love running around inside and out - weather depending - and all manner of small person traditions have evolved.  Macaroni and cheese with sliced up hot dogs as the sole approved sleep over supper are but one example.

Somewhere along the line the Rat and Snake story began.  

Grandson is much interested in nature stuff.  Fish, bugs, reptiles, mammals, you name it.  And he's very realistic about predators and prey.  So at some point the stuffed animal collection became a little drama troupe in which Snake, and later Fox, were constantly on the prowl trying to catch and eat our hapless protagonist, Rat.

Eventually Rat started asking me for advice on how to evade the predators.  Rat appropriately speaks in a "Mr. Bill" voice.

"Hey, Human.  Could you use your gigantic primate brain to help me figure out how to fool Snake?"

"Why sure, Rat.  Let's see.  You're warm blooded, right?  So let's put you in the freezer for a while.  Then when Snake touches you he'll get cold and sleepy and you can run away"

(dubiously) "Well......OK."

Of course this and many other variations on disguises, hiding places, use of improvised tools never, ever works out.  Afterwards a disheveled, but oddly still alive Rat, comes back and says: "You give the worst advice ever!"  Not that it stops him from coming back later and getting even more impractical counsel.  It has a Coyote and Roadrunner vibe to it, although having real voices to work with instead of "Meep! Meep!" makes it way more fun.  For me and for my grandson.  For Rat, oh not so much.

Between visits the trio usually just sit await for our return.  But sometimes the game goes on in our absence.  Here I posited that Rat wearing hunting garb would frighten off Snake and Fox.  Hmmm...I think the predators are on to us, Rat".

Friday, February 12, 2021


It's mid winter, darned cold and there's really not much interesting going on.  I've been tinkering with the program I'm giving next month on becoming a first time deer hunter in retirement years.  The occasional masked up trip to the sporting goods aisle is of course necessary.  On one such trip I came across this curiosity:

It is not surprising that there are products made to mask the scent of hunters.  Deer have excellent eyes, ears and noses.  That by the way is why hunting garb is often left outside in the weeks preceding the season.  If even I can smell bacon a ways off you can be sure that the odor would scream "MEAT EATER" to every whitetail in a one mile radius.

No, what surprised me was that this stuff is sold in these large 24 ounce spray bottles.  One wonders....are the spouses of deer hunters purchasing this in bulk as a year round option for deodorant?  

This opened up other lines of inquiry, so I stopped in at DEADDOWNWIND in search of answers.  And much did I learn....

Man they make a wide array of products.  All designed to make you and your clothing less stinky. Laundry Bombs!




Breath spray.  Perhaps useful for the backwoodsman going out on a date?  Hey, I hear lumberjacks are popular on dating apps. And haven't we all been down wind of someone whose breath is deadly a few times?

They even make some electronic gizmos.  Here's a little thing you plug into your car, or let's be honest your pickup truck, to reduce stinky odors there.  Just in case, you know, that whole dating app thing went well and you're driving her home!  It even has USB ports on it.   Why?

And on and on.  An entire business enterprise devoted to making manly men temporarily smell less manly.  Ain't capitalism grand!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Pitchers and Catchers Report

The unofficial end of winter is when "pitchers and catchers" report for spring training.  That actually happens next week but it is not unheard of for some eager beavers to turn up early.  With February becoming a long cold slog its easy to see why.

I don't know how my Minnesota Twins will do this year.  In addition to the usual roster shuffles there is the lingering off feeling from the Covid impacted 2020 season.  For me baseball is an escape from the mundane world.  Last year reality was far too intrusive.

Oh well, perhaps there will be another pennant for the home town lads.  And in that spirit a rare "guest blog".  Or rather simply sharing some nice work by a learned fellow with whom I periodically correspond.  


The blue one on the right was something of an enigma, clearly it had stylist similarities to the white pennant but it had no company mark or MLB logo, so presumably was a bit earlier.  Well, courtesy of the Pennant Fever blog, here's the whole tale!  

Pennant Fever

Soon, but none too soon for my tastes, baseball will return.  Hope Springs Eternal.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Robots Redux - FIRST in 2021

Consider the matter of approaching a long dormant machine with a mind to turn it back on.  You walk around it once, twice.  You take note of cobwebs here, a bit of rust there.  If it happens to be something more modern like a computer you wince as you wonder how many required software updates will need to be downloaded at the usual agonizing snail's pace.  But eventually you just have to go for it.  Throw the switch.  Will there be a long pause?  Will it work at all?  It's hard to know in advance.....

So it is with the FIRST robotics team.

It had been almost a year since we'd done anything significant.  School had been virtual most of that time.  We'd "moved house" from a sponsor's shop area into the high school's STEM center.  A batch of highly capable students had graduated and more will do so in a few months.  Our usual recruiting systems Machines Behaving Badly and our summer Robot Tuesdays have not been possible.  

It's the kind of scenario where anything can happen.  Apathy, funding cuts, extinction?  Or pent up enthusiasm from a year of virtual house arrest?  Well you just call a (thankfully in person) meeting and find out.

We had 21 kids show up.  Granted, 7 of them are seniors and we won't have them around much longer, but also four new recruits turned up before we'd actually done any real recruiting.  After such a long layoff they were ready to get things done.  A few photos of a hard working group spread out over multiple workspaces.

The next frontier.  Brushless motors and omnidirectional swerve drive.

Miracle of miracles, we have a five person business/PR team.

As with our previous build space the fluorescent lighting makes for horrid pictures.

Here newcomers learn basic wire connectors.  A few things got botched up, but that's how they learn.

And software, doing whatever it is they do with 1s and 0s.

Like everyone else in the world of FIRST, we've taken a hit with the covid lockdown.  For one thing our school districts, like most, has taken a financial hit and our future funding is uncertain.  But from what I saw at our first meeting, I predict Team 5826 will bounce back quickly.  And a good bounce can take you pretty high...

Friday, February 5, 2021

Tree Shaped Tombstones, Arkansaw Wisconsin

When out for a bit of a drive in November I swung by the very curiously named village of Arkansaw, Wisconsin.  It's named after the Arkansaw River which runs through the area.  Presumably this is named after the far more famous Arkansas river that runs through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and naturally, Arkansas.  

Arkansaw Wisconsin was established in the early 1850's to take advantage of water power that ran several mills on the river.  It was one of many such early, small communities that laid their bets on where industry and transportation would end up....and lost.  Today it is a clean, very quiet little hamlet where the stationary residents presumably outnumber the moving ones.  We'll drop in on a few of the former today.

This is the tombstone of a gent named Oscar Knight who passed on in 1902.  It has a remarkably wide base and the biggest "caption ribbon" I've ever seen.

Also a rather nice "dying dove".

Here's a commonplace tombstone for someone with the most commonplace of names.

And here's an oddity.  A tree form bench, but not in the limestone you usually see them in.  Nope, looks to be a sort of marble.  And it is not part of any specific burial plot, it's just sitting next to the shed where I suppose they keep the rakes and watering cans.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Lottery Dreams and Schemes

I understand that somebody won a Billion Dollar lottery in January.  Well, technically about half that if they did what most people do, take the money in a lump sum.  And pay taxes on it.  I'm shocked, yes shocked that people are so impatient that they can't wait for thirty annual payments and give less of this windfall straight back.

I have purchased five lottery tickets in my life.  Most were back in my clinic days.  When all your employees are going in on a batch of tickets you may as well toss in a couple of bucks.  Because if they win you'll be sans employees and likely out of business.  Nothing came of it of course.

It's probably as well.  The stories I've heard of lottery winners who became miserable in various ways are compelling.  And the effects on their kids when suddenly given no reason whatsoever to be hard working and responsible are predictably bad.

Still, I have my Lottery Dreams.  Doesn't everyone?

There are as I see it a few challenges.  Let's just ignore the obvious, that your odds of having a huge pile of money come to you via lottery are statistically the same as having a pallet of cash fall out of a poorly secured cargo jet and land in your back yard.  Putting that harsh dose of reality aside...

I don't really need a lot of money.  My lifestyle is simple, my kids self sufficient.  So I wouldn't want to win more than, oh let's say, 20 million dollars.  I do fear at my age the thirty year payout might not be practical.

I figure I'd use some of it to rent and keep in order modest apartments in England and Italy. That would allow me to just nip over for a visit whenever I fancied.  I'd have "people" in each destination who would on a few days notice, stock the fridge and pick me up at the airport.  I might have a non-descript car in each place.  My actual friends could use these little get away spots when I was not in residence.

And that's it for me.  Most of the rest I'd donate to worthy causes.  For fun I'd hire a few honest folks to travel around finding people and organizations that were quietly doing good.  I'd leave to my kids whatever amount I would have predicted they'd have gotten had I not become a Lottery Millionaire.  Like me they live modestly and shouldn't need more.

But I am troubled by another facet of lottery winnings....people knowing you have the money.  In Wisconsin as in many states, winners can't remain anonymous.  I'm sure there is an organized band of repugnant leeches and vultures who track all winners. 

So here's my plan.  I'll only buy a lottery ticket when the amount is in my preferred zone, and when the redemption window - I think it's 120 days - contains either a major holiday or the prospect of a blizzard.  I want people distracted and vultures deterred when we show up at the Lottery office.

Yes, we.  I know a few young folks trying to make it in show business.  I'd be happy to hire one of them to play the part of a giddy, garrulous young lottery winner.  I'd pay him $100,000 to play "me" for an hour.  With a couple of conditions.

I'd be on hand playing the role of lawyer.  I'd walk out of the place with the check tucked into my briefcase.  I would take precautions to not be recognizable by distant relatives and long lost friends, of whom I suspect I'd otherwise have a great many.  My Lottery alter ego would have used the 120 day window to establish a convincing social media presence in my name.  It would be heavy on bass fishing, Walmart, boasts of fancy cars, you know the drill.  The lad I have in mind for this - lets call him "Jake" - actually writes pretty well too.  

I hope this would confuse the situation just enough that when I return from a prolonged vacation there would be minimal interest by the vultures and pseudo-relatives.   A measly 20 mill won't hold the public's attention for long anyway when there is somebody with a Billion dollar payday driving around the Walmart parking lot in a swell new sports car!

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Dig - A Review of Dirt and Soap

Obviously I came to Netflix's new offering "The Dig" with every intention of being delighted, or at a minimum, diverted.  Getting anything new in the way of entertainment is a plus as we slog towards the one year anniversary of Covid restrictions.  And to get something dealing with British Archaeology is a rare treat.  I also consider Ralph Fiennes to be a superb actor.

So, how'd it all play out?

It was an interesting mixture of Dirt and Soap.  

The first half of the movie was actually about archaeology.  You learn some things about burial mounds, early grave robbers and about the small, scholarly and rather snooty community of people who pottered about digging up the past in the early 20th century.  It took a few liberties...cutting a few corners here and there and I don't mean the nice clean sharp corners of Basil Brown's trenches.  It was implied that the time frame was only a few high pressure weeks just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  Actually it was over two excavation seasons, 1938 and 1939.  The scene where a trench caves in on Brown was harrowing but could not have happened with that trench.  Nor for that matter would he be alive after having been buried for long enough to summon the entire household staff to help dig him out.

But they made it look good.  I enjoyed seeing the open, almost lonely English countryside.  And when Basil rode to the site on his bicycle it brought back happy memories of walking to Vindolanda on similar mornings of mist and promise.  Oh, they could have done a few little things for the benefit of archaeology fans, who have of course embraced this en masse.  The burial mounds were obviously constructed for the production, no doubt by just having an earth mover pile up dirt and landscapers lay sod.  There was no stratigraphy in the trenches, just uniform, boring topsoil.  

The people who make these programs really should consult me.  Here, free of charge is an embellishment that would cost about 10 pounds in expense and 15 seconds of screen time.

SCRIPT: - Edith runs her elegantly manicured nails over the patterned layers of soil in the excavation face.  A shard of pottery falls away.  Holding it in her hand she pauses -  "It speaks to us Mr. Brown.  It is the distant voice of those who have left us" - Brief flashback to her deceased husband.  She closes her hand over the shard and holds it to her chest, coughing in a ladylike fashion -.

The second half of the production is all about "Relationships".  OK, that's interesting enough and if you stuck to straight up digging you'd have no audience.  Heck, even Time Team left the trench and went off in silly directions to keep people interested in the excavations.  Dressing up in Medieval robes and such like.  The change in focus to the people over the dig works because you've come to care about them.  That's no easy accomplishment over a small amount of preceding screen time.

But here they took many liberties, and my UK friends in the know are in a bit of a lather over some of them.  Peggy Piggott for instance is depicted as a slightly ditzy newlywed who looked about 20 years old and was asked along on the dig primarily because she was so petite that her footsteps on delicate archaeology would be less damaging.  In fact she was 27, had been married for three years already and was accomplished as both an excavator and a scholar by the time she came to the Sutton Hoo site.  Gracious, she had already directed an excavation in 1937.  In "The Dig" she dumps her obviously gay husband in favor of a dashing young RAF man.  In reality she stayed married until 1956.  

But I give credit and ratings stars where they are earned.  By the time the archaeology became secondary you actually did care about the characters.  Lady Edith was made to subtly age reflecting her failing health.  Her regret over her dead husband and her soon to be orphaned son were poignant.  Points to the makeup department also for Basil Brown.  I've never seen the ingrained "permadirt" of a serious excavator accurately depicted before!  And it certainly added to the weary, care worn, under appreciated look that defined him.  The great gulf between educated "toffs" and hard working, lower class workers may not be obvious to casual American audiences but could not be missed when watching these characters interact.

To my great surprise there was essentially no depiction of the Sutton Hoo treasures.  The gold is briefly glimpsed. There was a coin.  The famous Sutton Hoo helmet might have been in that batch of corroded metal that was sent off to the lab in an off hand way.

If I were script doctor I'd have changed the ending slightly.  Rather than long, long views of the excavation site as the credits roll I'd have had soft focus views of finds on display in the British Museum at a later date.  I think even those who came for Soap instead of Dirt would have appreciated that.  And for those of us who have our priorities in reverse order?  Well even I would have liked some follow up on the main and secondary characters.  Did the dashing RAF recruit fall in battle?  ( As he was a fictional element to the story the answer is up to the writers!) Did Peggy Piggotte find professional success and romantic bliss?  ( Sounds like Yes and No  respectively).

Kudos Netflix, and a job well done by the entire cast.  The Dig is set in the same interbellum Downton Abbey period that has been documented in such detail, yet it shows a world unfamiliar to most.  And in the modern era when aerial photography and high tech ground penetrating radar makes Wonderous Surprise less common, it depicts a world that in its own way has receded into the past.