Monday, August 30, 2021

More than Toys

The movie Toy Story became an instant classic for many reasons, but mostly because it showed us something that we all instinctively know to be true....some toys are more than just toys.

For me it was a circa 1960 stuffed animal I called "Mr. Minky".  He looked pretty much like this guy.

I'm told I was a precocious imp who started talking early, so Minky and I must have gone way back.  Many years later when helping my parents move I found him.  He was down in the basement in a never visited cubby under some stairs.  Mildewed, plastic crumbling, his vapid simian expression was still happy.  Into the dumpster he went.  As I had a brother actively hauling crap back out for dubious sentimental reasons there is a slim chance that he moulders on somewhere.

My own lads seemed less into this sort of thing.  Oh, somebody decided to make them into sensitive modern males and got them a baby doll.  "Baby Mike" ended up being used as a hammer, and sometimes for more advanced experiments that involved falling long distances.  This is probably the sort of thing that gets reported nowadays, but the kids all turned out fine.

Seeing things through grandparent eyes is different.  You are so focused on not missing a single moment that assorted minor characters are noticed.  Toys, or more than toys, appear, have their day and fade into obscurity.

First came Possum.  He was actually some kind of dog toy.  He had not one but two "squeakers".  This made for considerable amusement when he was for instance hiding in Grandpa's back pocket.  Every time I sat down there would be a squeak and I'd leap up trying to figure out where Possum was hiding.  Possum developed a mischievous streak after a bit.  One time he danced across a ledge gleefully pushing things off.  The eldest grandchild was shocked...."Possum, why did you DO that?!".  He had a brief revival with GC2, but has now vanished.

Obviously characters like Possum are my fellow players in the constant "Grandpa Show" that has been running for years.  Not quite puppets, they have their own personas.  The current co-star is Doll Baby.  Here she is:

Doll Baby has the strongest personality of all my Comedic Foils*, perhaps reflecting the Indomitable Will of her owner.  And to put it as kindly as possible, Doll Baby is a Stinker.  Hugs, kisses, Doll Baby hands then out with abandon to all.  Except to Grandpa.  With me she'll peer in close, pause, then give me audible "raspberries" every time.  Or she'll use her one extended thumb to methodically pick her nose.  If I get up from the table to get something from the kitchen she'll steal my chair every time.  


Like Possum before her Doll Baby is something of a stock character.  I think of her as a version of the "clever servant" that dates back to Greek Theater with an upgrade of 1930's wise cracking kid, of which examples abound.

She seems to be enjoying her moment of fame.  As she should.  As fellow stock figures destined to become a distant, fond memories she and I are actually on the same side, although you'd not know it from her horrid behaviour.


* Foil is a very interesting word.  In the sense of theatrics a foil is a secondary character that highlights the main cast member.  It comes from the practice of putting a thin layer of shiny metal on the back of a jewel to make it shine brighter.  Foil in the sense of a thin piece of metal comes from the Latin folia meaning leaf.  See also, foliage.  Foil in the sense of "Curses, foiled again" has an entirely different etymology.  Said to be circa 1300 it comes from foilen a French word that means roughly to mess up a trail by stomping around on it.  Oddly this goes back further to Latin, really what doesn't,  fullare, which means to tread on cloth.....although oddly in this sense to clean it.  

Friday, August 27, 2021


Fingers crossed that the 2021-22 school year begins and continues on a more normal basis.

For two decades - missing only the Plague Year of 2020 - I have taught classes in the middle school's afterschool program.  The longest running was Machines Behaving Badly, now retired as the technology has become outdated and anyway we've started to just bump the smarter 8th graders up to the high school team.  I've also done assorted Advanced Robotics classes, some of which worked well, others not so much.  I even did a couple rounds of Dungeons and Dragons, and was gratified when another fellow picked this up and kept it running for years.  But what to do this fall?

Of course I'm hoping that the high school robotics team keeps meeting so doing the double Tuesday/Thursday option as in MBB is off the table.  So for a casual, flexible concept I've come up with something I call "Enigma".

This will be a series of one hour sessions where a small group of kids solves puzzles.  Really tricky puzzles.  I'm thinking cryptography, gps based scavenger hunts, riddles, crosswords, foreign language translation and who knows what.  The goal each week will be to learn something new, and to successfully identify a five letter code that unlocks this:

It's a wooden treasure chest, made long ago by one of my sons.  It now has a special padlock that allows me to change the combination.  And what's inside?  Actually even I won't know.  The program staff will take care of that.  I'm hoping Cheezits and Little Debbie cakes.  You won't greatly motivate kids with the conventional healthy fruits n' fiber snacks they are usually stuck with.

After perhaps six sessions I'll have the group switch over from puzzle solvers to puzzle creators.  Using what they have learned they will put together a multi stage code breaking, trivia, mapping challenge......and pose it to an all star team of teachers and administrators.  Who will prove to be smarter?

Other than my own amusement there is a point to this silliness.  I want kids to think.  Independently and critically.  To that end I am going to purposely include errors in some of the messages.  That's the real world.  Or, the messages will just look like errors and they will have to trust their work.  I'll ask a lot of questions.  And when they give me an answer - let's say a correct one - I will look at them over my glasses and ask skeptically: "Really?  Are you sure about that?"

My hope is that they will learn to look me right in the eye and confidently say: "Yep.  Very Sure".

That's the general direction.  In my course intro I am going to emphasize the point that I am not trying to make them into sneaky people.  No, what I'm trying to do is get their brains better able to figure out a world chock full of codes and puzzles.  And is there any time where they all make less sense than middle school?

In the interests of transparency, and because they might be of general interest, I'll be publishing the quizzes and best answers in abbreviated form in the weeks ahead.   Who knows,  maybe somebody out there will want to take this idea and run with it. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Deer Hunting 2021 - Part Two, Zeroing In.

I am always intrigued by pursuits where my assorted interests overlap.  It makes things more fun.  Consider the physics of marksmanship.  Well, I can't consider it deeply because in such matters I am just smart enough to see the questions and a measly few of the answers.

But sending a projectile a reasonable distance for northern Wisconsin deer hunting (100 yards give or take a bit) with sufficient accuracy is not straightforward.  Gravity kicks in at some point and straight lines will betray you.  This assumes you can aim straight to start with, a dubious assumption for this tyro, and that your rifle was accurately sighted in.

And on that point....when I bought a rifle earlier this year the shop was too darned busy to put the scope on and sight it for me.  My son helped me a bit, but now it is time to fine tune.

Step one:  I got this nifty little laser.  It fits inside the barrel and will give you that straight line "bore sight" accuracy.  

In general lasers will work to sight things at 25 yards.  Beyond that the reflected red dot probably can't be seen well enough.  Unless......

What you see above is a dot of a special "retro reflective" tape made by 3M.  We use it in robotics applications.  Instead of sending the light back in a haphazard fashion it bounces it directly back.  In its extreme applications I've heard you can bounce a laser off a target left on the moon and detect its return.  So, 100 yards seems pretty doable.

And off to the woods.  I decided to set up in an area we actually hunt in.  This time of year there is nobody around and the sight lines and backstops are good.  Plus, its a real world test, albeit with a lot more leaves this time of year.  Here the rifle is secured on a stable bench, aiming at that blue target.  I set it 55 yards away.

Although the laser reflection was absolutely Eye of Sauron bright at that distance, and in fact would have been out much farther, centering the cross hairs on it did not put me on target. 

The reasons for this are probably multiple.  There is more laser scatter than I expected.  So although you will get a flash back at a long range it is not guaranteed to be a perfectly straight line.  Also, seeing as I am missing low, there could be some gravity involved.  But mostly I suspect its my inexperience as a new shooter with a new rifle.  Well, you adjust the scope with the rifle locked down, dialing the cross hairs to where the shots are clustering.  After a bit of fiddling and a new target, things were looking better.

From the lock down times we have a bunch of carryout pizza boxes on hand.  They make an excellent final target.

And the results?  Well to make it realistic I of course had to take the rifle off the bench and fire it normally.  Three rounds quickly from a sitting position at a plausible deer hunting range.

I consider this to be quite good considering my newness to hunting and it being the first time I've ever sighted in a rifle.  It should put food on the table.  And not pizza.

Ongoing practice of course is needed, and I will walk it out to 100 yards next time.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Deer Hunting 2021 - Part One, Gearing Up.

Preparations for Family Deer Camp seem a bit haphazard this year.  Of course that just means that last year we had way too much time on our hands!  But there are Things to be Done and the end of summer means it is time to get at them.

I've had trail cams out intermittently.  They are cheap units and so are not going to have long range or great sensitivity.  Sometimes they show you things:

The deer really like that tree in the center of the frame.  I caught multiple images of them using it, as above, to scratch their butts!

Other places I've set up the cams have shown little.  This despite my seeing quite a few of the critters standing around the area looking right at me. 

Last year we had a deer that appeared to come up and lick the trail cam.  While changing batteries just now I noticed this:

Somebody, given the bite size I suspect a porcupine, decided to have a nibble!  It must have been from behind or even with this level of electronics quality we'd have had an interesting picture.  Maybe some of the shots of empty woods happened when the camera was being gnawed on.  That might set off the motion sensor.

A couple of important matters needed attending to.  Hunting permits are an online deal, and this year's sign up involved several time zones, babysitting grandkids, etc.   With assorted electronics deployed we were able to get the requisite (non) paperwork accomplished.

I feel as if my success last year involved a mixture of luck and persistence leavened with only trace elements of skill.  I need to be a better marksman both in the interest of Tasty Vension for the freezer and to be humane to the deer.  Nobody wants to wound a critter that runs off and is not found.  A degree of judgement is required.  Sometimes you should just wish a deer at long range or in deep cover a good evening and keep waiting.  And as in all things, practice makes you better. 

So I was very happy to see this notice at the local Scheel's store!

That's gonna help.  Stay tuned for Part Two.....




Friday, August 20, 2021

On the Back Fence

Hops are an interesting life form.  We might be able to learn from them.

The Male variant:

"Behold, are we not frilly and magnificent!"

And the Female:

"Happy and plump.  Soon time for beer".

A few weeks later we can reflect on the transience of beauty as the guys age and fail...

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Tooth Fairy is a Scam

I don't recall for sure what I got from the Tooth Fairy when I was a single digit tyke.  I seem to remember nice shiny dimes under the pillow in the morning but all memories from a half century ago must be regarded as suspect.  I understand my grandkids are doing considerably better in the business.

And if it is a business, well, the Tooth Fairy is a scamster on the level of the shadiest of Nigerian Princes.

We lose 20 baby teeth.  If I got a dime a piece and invested it at what once was a reasonably expected 7% annually.  I'd now have the (not Nigerian) princely sum of $83.

And let me tell ya, when through bad luck, bad heredity and just maybe a few foolish things like crimping fishing sinkers you have a tooth that cracks badly enough to be extracted?

$83 bucks won't get you far.

Well there is a time for economy and a time to (oops, not gonna bite any bullets!) do what needs doing.  With the aid of lots of IV sedation I can report that the entire procedure might just as well have happened to somebody else.

And my better half wrote the check before I returned to this planet, so that's helpful.  I burned a few spousal credits on this deal, probably putting me back to negative numbers after - I swear - months of being an absolute paragon.

Monday, August 16, 2021

A Dubious Bargain

 Here's something I saw on my morning walk the other day.  It raises questions.

The simplest answer is usually the correct one.  I checked, and it is not illegal to own or to sell poisonous snakes in Wisconsin.  So I guess if you really wanted a deadly reptile, and did not have a spouse, children or other pets that you were overly fond of, heck $25 seems like a great deal!

On the other hand, when I google searched Pit Vipers for sale I got page after page of a fancy brand of sun glasses by that name.  The prices were all over the place.  Some special edition versions were over $100.  Other, plainer versions more like $50.  So perhaps this would be a bargain if what you got were brand name, not cheap knockoffs.  

I suppose I should have called the number and asked, but to be honest neither transaction appeals to me.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Michigan Odds and Ends

Our trip to Michigan was pretty focused.  Lots of driving to get to Ann Arbor, then all available time spent with the guy we came to visit.  So I have surprisingly little else to report. We were just visiting/cleaning or driving most of the time.  But a couple of odds and ends...

Lansing Michigan.  When we drove into town we saw steam billowing out of the manholes in the street.  The next day when out for a walk I even saw one that had a stack on it.

I ran across a pleasant city employee working nearby.  I asked him about this.  He said that he understood there to be a steam heating system under the city.  I reminded him that this was August 1st.  He thought that maybe a certain amount of steam had to be run through it to keep it running.  Not exactly a Green Future here folks, burning fossil fuels to blow steam into the air in mid summer......

Nearby there was this Big Brain statue.  Maybe it is pondering the peculiarity of what is going on a block away.

We did make one other stop on the way down, at a place called Crystal Falls.  It seems the area around this little town is home to a gigantic, ancient fungus.  It is 30 acres in size and one of the largest and oldest organisms on earth.  So of course they have a Humongous Fungus Fest.

Frankly it was disappointing.  We knew that no part of the "fungus" is visible above ground this time of year.  But we figured there would be something interesting going on.   But other than a little, generic market and a lot of garage sales, it seems this chalk art was about it on a Saturday afternoon.

Oh, and the local movie theater was about to show a World Premier of a movie about the Humongous Fungus....

Well that's not a topic I'd want to spend part of a beautiful afternoon pondering, and besides we had many miles yet to drive.  

But hey, you might find it fascinating.  Here's a LINK to it!

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

What Light there Is.

The main reason for our Michigan trip was to visit my father in law.  He's 98 years old and living alone in an apartment.  Family closer to home has been diligent....but it is still miraculous that a guy who can't hear or see much at all has been hanging in there through a year and a half of social isolation.  He is in his own way one tough old guy.

Prepared for things Much Worse we found him sitting in his usual chair, right where we left him roughly two years ago.  Shouted conversations at ridiculously short range ensued.

And a hair cut.  And some food from the Outside World.  And cleaning.

So much cleaning.

Bathrooms, cupboards, drawers, carpets.  The fridge - usually a Red Zone in homes of the elderly - had been replaced recently and was in great shape.  Walls, light switches, shelves....there is always one more thing that needs a swipe.

Eventually I took a good hard look at the sliding door/windows that are his sole source of outside light.  Time to scrub.

This is obviously a weird and/or artistic shot with intentional reflections.  By the time I was done you'd need the reflections to tell that there was a window there at all.

People seem so fragile these days.  But they can also be so durable, so indomitable.  I'm not sure I could exist for so long with this reduced level of social and sensory contact, but it can be done.  At least on driving away I could take a measure of pride in this:  If his window on the world is imperfect it is at least scrubbed, polished and letting in what Light there Is.

Monday, August 9, 2021

The Lansing Lugnuts

On our voyage through Michigan we needed a stopping off spot.  So why not Lansing?  After all, it has a minor league ball team.  Specifically the Lansing Lugnuts.  Even in the world of  single A ball it is an odd name, reflecting the auto industry of the Wolverine state.  I  like their logo.  I've had one of their hats for a while now, it fits in well for wear at robotics sessions.

As is my custom, I'll review the experience in several important categories.

1. The Ballpark

Quite a nice place.  It is just across the river from downtown.  As you'll see in assorted pictures the crowd was pretty small despite nice weather on a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps being in sight of the Michigan state capitol building has had an inhibitory effect.  I'm told that Fun is frowned upon by the current governor.

Out beyond the center field wall there are fancy upscale condos.  Nary a fan on any of the balconies.

2. The food and drink.

Sometimes when I travel I remind myself that not every place is Wisconsin.  So the fact that I found the bratwurst and beer to be not up to the standards of the Badger State should not be regarded as a condemnation.  Their ways are not our ways.  I always try to have my provisions in hand by the time the National Anthem is sung.  Here is a tasty looking glass of a Mexican style lager.  Lansing uniquely to my experience has three official names.  The Lugnuts, the Black Rhinos and the Lansing Locos.  The latter two names are to reflect the tradition of earlier Negro League teams in Lansing and the Hispanic influence on the game.  Maybe also to sell extra merch.

3. The Anthem

I did not make it all the way back to my seat, so when the Star Spangled Banner was sung I was actually standing next to the center field flag pole looking up.  The lady singing was pretty good, and she in fact came and sat down four rows in front of us.  The experience was made better, for me and likely for others, by the fact that I was pretty much all by myself out there and could attempt some serious cross octaves harmony!

4. The Mascot

Meet The Big Lug.  He/she/it is some kind of toothy dinosaur whose only connection with the actual team name are those creepy nose piercings which indeed are huge lug nuts.  The Lugster was good with young fans:

Oh, you thought I'd forgo my usual picture?  Silly you.  This is one of the "huggier" mascots I've run across, but when you turn up at the photo backdrop reserved for such interactions that's only to be expected.

5. The actual game.

It's minor league ball.  You don't judge teams by the same standards as the Majors.  In fact if you have a decent single A team it won't be that way for long, the better players get called up to "The Show" or are traded off for future considerations.  Lansing was having a tough day when we where there.  

But there was one bright spot.  A shaggy first baseman/catcher named William Simoneit.  The rest of the team frankly looked rather blah.  But this guy ran hard and got excited when he made a good play.  He eventually broke up the No Hitter that the Lugs were suffering through with a 7th inning single.  He later also broke up the shut out with a 9th inning RBI double.  But best of all he got to come in and pitch two innings.  When a position player pitches it is never a good situation, that means the score is out of reach.  But he went at it with verve, mixing his "fast ball" which looked to be about 70 mph with a....something or other pitch that often did not register on the speed gun at all.  When it did it was in the low 40's, so roughly half the speed of a creditable major or minor league fastball.  It was lots of fun.  Hey, if Simoneit ever makes it to the big time you can say you read about him first at Detritus of Empire!  (Hint, he will not be making it as a pitcher).

Friday, August 6, 2021

Serious Responsibility

We are just back from a trip to Michigan.  That means a bit of time staying in hotels.  After being close to home for so long it feels odd.  Even the little hotel amenities - freebies if you will - seemed unusual....

To be clear, this was just coffee.  But the packaging was oddly similar to another sort of product.  And in that case the, er, grand scale of things would seem to make their motto an attainable goal.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Tree Shaped Tombstones - On the Bench with a Clue

In the oddly named town of Quasqueton Iowa a minor clue to the age of something.  Benches and planters in the style of tree shaped tombstones are not common.  Oh, once in a while you encounter a batch of them, often finding them the worse from the elements, but they never seemed to catch on.  Here is a nicely kept up bench and planter.

Interestingly the bench has a name on it.

Of course the point of a bench is that people might come and sit on it, remembering the Departed for a while.  Said Departed has a commonplace stone right up front.

I'd say this places the bench circa 1915.  Planters seem to have a wider range of age but again, I'd say 1910 plus.  Considering the labor involved in the carving of such things, did the approach of WWI influence the departure of this style in favor of more mundane markers?

Monday, August 2, 2021

A Deceptive Cannon

Well here's something you don't find in every cemetery.  A large cannon.  Oh, you see them sometimes in veteran's sections or perhaps guarding a gate.  But this was just off in a corner aiming nowhere in particular. 

I told my brother that it looked like Civil War vintage, possibly of a type called a Dahlgren gun.  

But now we have to explain this.  A 1903 date and a mark from a local foundry on the gun carriage.  Hmmmm.

I'm pretty sure there were no munitions factories of any import in Northwood Iowa at any point in history.  So lets get to work.

I was mostly right about the gun proper.  Not a Dahlgren but a similar type called a Rodman gun.  Cannon were named for their inventors, and each little incremental improvement in an old technology got its own moniker.  This type was first made in 1861 although this particular example was cast in 1865 in Reading PA.  It weighs almost 8,500 pounds and fired an eight inch projectile.

There are actually two of these guns in town, the other sits outside the courthouse.  At one point at least one of them was in the city park.  One assumes they came to town in the usual fashion, as war surplus and patriotic icons in the years after Appomattox. 

A gun of this caliber, and weighing over four tons, would require a very substantial carriage.  Frankly this does not look up to the task.  Some of these were surplused without carriages, or perhaps the original had deteriorated.   I imagine this 1903 ersatz was cobbled up as a "good enough" replacement when the gun was moved to the cemetery.  I do not suggest they attempt to fire it on this dubious base.