Wednesday, October 26, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Up and Running

Some FIRST Robotics teams run year round.  We are not at that level of intensity yet and in particular have many members who are also in Marching Band.  So it was a Saturday in late October before we could get the team together again.   

No shortage of things to do.  The customary pep talk and review of the season past, then a look ahead at the 2017 campaign.  It looks promising.

But first lets tear down all the field elements we built to practise last year's game.  With the theme this year being "Steam Punk" it is unlikely that assorted castle parts will be called for.

The "Main Event" of the day was our (second) annual Mock Challenge.  In the regular season they get six weeks to design, build and test a robot capable of doing many functions with a high degree of reliability.  For our purposes we went with building robots that have rather simplistic tasks.  But the kids only get three hours to work.  No time to waste.

This year they were in effect building robot "dump trucks" that had to deliver and gently set down a wide array of objects under radio control.  Extra plus points for things like balls that try to roll away.  Extra points plus OR minus for fragile things like eggs that arrive either intact or...otherwise.

Although a puny imitation of the serious earthmoving equipment that was working across the street from us, CATERPILLER was a well built machine.  The scoop was hooked to a linear actuator and could be angled to dump things in the right spot.  A loose battery wire did hinder its performance for a while.

Of somewhat more chaotic build this unnamed robot had a vice on the front that could be remotely opened and closed. When loaded up with barbels and such it was a bit front heavy.  By unofficial scorekeeping it also "won" the competition. 

An assortment of Objects that had to be transported.  The garden gnome got broken even before the time trials.  The creepy undead figurine with soul sucking eyes, alas, lives on.

Ready to roll.  We did a couple of runs and Objects actually did get delivered to the designated target areas.  And to quite a few other places as well.  Pretty solid work for a three hour build exercise.

Remarkably the egg made it through intact.  Maybe not so remarkably.  I did have it wrapped up for transporting to the site.  And when one of the kids pointed that out and said it would only be fair to use it in that fashion, I could not argue.  It's always good to keep them hunting for rules loop holes.

Star of the day though was last year's robot.  I had the programming team whip up an autonomous program that would let it also play the game.  So it was put in the starting area and "the button was pushed".  Unguided by human hand it purred up to the target area, lined up the shot and launched a cardboard box to the exact center of the target.  It then turned around - I swear it did so with an insolent little flounce - and drove itself back to the point of departure.

Yikes, tournament level autonomous programming at our first official team get together.  It's gonna be a fun ride.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ya feelin' Lucky, Chip?

It's that time of year again.  Leaves are turning brilliant colors, delighting the eye for a few days before saying "ah, what's the point?" and dropping off.  Every warm day we have left is a precious gift, a reminder that Temps Fugit.

It is also Invasion Season.

I won't go on about the lady bugs, but they do get worse every year.

No, the main challange to the defense perimeter at Trowelsworthy Hall are the rodents.

Especially chipmunks.  They have been particularly insolent this year.  Not a single tomato escaped their depredations.  So bold have they become that a man sitting on his front porch reasonably expecting to enjoy his pint in undisturbed peace finds them dashing about mere inches away on their antic missions.

And now, now when they sense the approach of icy winter in the rat like core of their beings, they want to come inside and mooch enough BTUs to make it through to spring.

You have to keep all the doors closed or they will just dash on in.

The other day I had the garage door open as I did a minor task.  I had picked up an electric lawnmower off the Free Pile on the neighbor's curb.  It had a few parts that may come in handy for future projects but the machine proper was a big old slab of plastic.  Of the non recycleable sort too if you find irony in that.  Most electric lawn mowers tout their virtues as EcoFriendly.

So I am on the driveway sawing this to bits with a menacing Sawzall.  I have on my safety glasses (bifocal version) and my hearing protection because this tool is noisy.  Also dangerous so I was paying very close attention as the lawnmower was reduced to sawed up bits of Gaia Insulting, EcoUnfriendly parts.

Stepping back I raised my gaze and saw....a chipmunk.  He was by my feet perhaps 18 inches away.

Both of us were clearly calculating the odds.  

Me: "Shall I power on the saw and give him a good scare?"

Chip: "'s bluffin'.  I know 'e is.  If'n I just lunge at his ankle 'e will be distracted long enough for me to get past 'im.  Birdseed....I can smell it in there!  'owsa 'bout a nice warm corner to hibernate in 'til Spring?  I can take 'im...I knows it!"

Our eyes locked.  I raised the Sawzall suggestively.  His little snout wrinkled in disdain but he twitched his tail and ran off.  For the moment anyway.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Robotics Update 24 October

The middle school robotics classes are progressing fairly well.  It is a smarter than usual batch of students this year.  We look forward to seeing a number of them on the FIRST team in the future.

I like the classic designs.  A four wheel drive pusher made of polycarbonate.  It needs a front wedge and some armor but it is in "driving practice" stage now.  There is something about transparent robots that I have always liked.

Now here's an odd duck.  The student building this one started out with a seriously flawed idea. Just dismantle an old RC car and slap the parts on.  So I started asking him questions.  "How are you planning on putting that cheap Chinese made gearbox back together?  How will you control forward and reverse? Did you know that our radio recievers run on 6 volts and that RC cars run on 9.6?  Can you guess what happens if you power a radio reciever at 9.6 volts?"  And so on.  I told him he was quite welcome to work on his plan for as long as he wished but that a major redesign was probably wise.  He got a thoughtful look on his face, went over to one of my Junk Bins and pulled out a 6 volt motor/gearbox from a Barby Jeep.  "Might this work?".

Why, yes.  Yes it would.  As a reward for directed thinking I am helping him more with the control system issues.  This monster will be an unstoppable pushing machine.  Also impossible to control in action.  Should be amusing to watch.

Sigh.  Another bright student with another serious design issue.  He has a very spiffy robot in near complete state.  It has an effective saw blade weapon.  And it is four ounces over weight with no realistic way to make weight.  For charging ahead and building without thinking he gets points for enthusiasm.  But he dug this hole, he can dig his way out.  I did tell him that there was a way we could eliminate the 6 volt drive battery with a voltage stepdown device. But I made him learn how to use a multimeter and do all his own soldering and testing. Here it is shortly before being hooked to power.  I always try to get them a little nervous before hooking something like this up.  "Are you sure you adjusted the power output?  Do you really have the positive and negative wires connected properly?  Are we going to have smoke, sparks and disappointment when you power this up?"

Of course he had wired it properly.  

This is a clever but somewhat annoying lad.  His robot is still a few ounces over weight.  I told him that for every remaining week of class that he did not bug me too much he would get one ounce of "grace".

Here a student is getting ready to glue ceramic tile to the front of his robot.  Now I do know that ceramics are used in various body armor but I have never seen it used in robotics.  We will see what the assorted arena hazards ( or "Inconveniences as I call them) do to this.  

Because it makes me happy I have taken more photos of this entrant.  The young lady who is building it has dubbed it "Melvin".  It is a nice bit of work but like all high powered weapons this saw may have enough oomph to self destruct.  The plastic of this old Barby Jeep gearbox was rather brittle when we were working to mod it.

This student has gone to great lengths to protect his wheels from the side.  And he has even gone so far as to put a polycarbonate roof on his machine.  What, is he expecting sharp and/or heavy objects to drop from above during the tournament?

As I said, this is a smart batch of kids this year.

Friday, October 21, 2016


Lately I have been learning how to use a Bridgeport vertical milling machine.  Its somewhat complicated but unlike the lathe I don't have to first unlearn assorted bad habits.  This is all new to me.

Bridgeport mills are so commonly used that the brand name has almost become synonymous with this kind of machine.  Rather like all facial tissues are called Kleenex.  It is a marvelous bit of technology first built around 1930.  It was a radical advance in machining ability, so much so that they sold well even during the Great Depression.  There are plenty of units out there that are twenty or thirty years old and going strong.

These machines have their own language you work with.  Today we learned how to "stone the table" and to "Tram the head".

The little L shaped bits of metal seen here are "Trip Dogs".

Even when you update these machines the technology looks like clunky old 1980's stuff.  And perhaps this "DRO" actually is that old.

Dove tail ways....

When does a simple machine become something more?  These big solid Bridgeport mills are almost like pieces of folk art.  There's no reason really to have a tortise and a bunny designating the fast and slow spindle speed settings.

Lets make some chips.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Tree Shaped Tombstones - The La Crosse Carver Part II

After roaming the quiet lanes of Oak Grove Cemetery I resumed my actual mission in La Crosse, which was to check out a possible brewery cave.  More on this another day.  But my interest was diverted once again by another unexpected cemetery, this time the Catholic Cemetery of La Crosse.

Although this one is a bit newer it also had considerable promise as there seems to be a slight tendency towards "Tree Shaped Tombstones" in Catholic grave yards.  This proved to be an unusual cemetery.

You may recall that I left Oak Grove with photos of a "Rustic Cross" style monument.  Here are two more in the Catholic Cemetery that are clearly the work of the same hand.  One is a little more modest than the others, but otherwise...sturdy base, Dying Dove on right branch, wing held upwards....

Next up was a surprise.  These stumps are unusually not subsidiary to a family monument. They are stand alones.  And again the local craftsman's attention to detail on these is clear.

The hand of nature has improved upon the hand of Man here.  The yellow lichen almost looks like painted on highlights.  Very pleasing work.

I'm going to wander off topic a little, but the Catholic Cemetery of La Crosse had some odd stuff in it.  There were a bunch of these grottos, most in need of some repair.

There were also quite a few of these stark metal monuments.  I think this is a European style because they all appear to be associated with Czech names.

I'm sure it was a commerical product, not hand made.  But it also had some nice details.  See here where the soul cluching a bouquet of flowers ascends Heavenward from a very Old World looking city.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Tree Shaped Tombstones - The La Crosse Carver Part I

October is a fine month for traveling here in the Midwest.  The fall colors are always nice and sometimes stunning.  The weather is probably going to be OK.  So I recently found myself in La Crosse Wisconsin on an errand that was frankly non essential but seemed a good excuse for a road trip.

Spicy food was consumed, robot parts exchanged, but my itinerary for the day was seriously altered when I ran across not one but two cemeteries with interesting Tree Shaped Tombstones.

As a self appointed expert on the subject matter I have made a sufficient study of these to be able to detect "styles".  And in La Crosse both cemeteries featured work by a so far unidentified artisan that I shall refer to as "The La Crosse Carver".  Come on, lets look at his work.

First we pull in to Oak Grove Cemetery right across the street from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse campus. 

You start running into nice examples right away, but lets take a bit of time to look at the interesting local variations on these.

I have seen far too many Tree Shaped Tombstones that have toppled over or had damage around the base due to a poorly constructed foundation.  Here in La Crosse many of the examples had this sturdy and aesthetically pleasing base piece.  Notice also that the main portion of the carving is still somewhat square.  I am certain that this was a concious decision. It makes for a sort of stylized but still recognizable tree.  They were going for the theme rather than for explicit realism.

A close up of the "La Crosse" base and the unusual shape of the monument.

I have run through various City Directories from the appropriate time period but have not thus far been able to identify the stone carver by name.  But I have to think he had a kind heart and/or a sentimental streak.  A rather high proportion of the monuments had tender sentiments expressed, often in little custom side panels.

In the above inscription the carver either made two typos or perhaps was using a dialect of German.  The message reads approximately:  "To the memory of my true spouse and our (Late? Lost?) son" and is signed Fr. (Frau?) W. Bendel.  The H in Theureren should be an R based on my text book German.  And Gatten is plural for spouse.  Maybe she had more than one?  But I doubt a remarried woman would be buried with two men.  That would seem - for no logical reason - rather improper.

As to the message below no translation or comment is necessary.

Our stone carver put more than the usual effort into carving the little subsidiary markers that often surround a larger family monument.

Above an oak leaf, which was appropriate in Oak Grove Cemetery.  Below, I am not sure what it is.

It is not uncommon to find little messages like this on the top of the subsidiary markers. This artisan as we shall see, went a little above and beyond on some of them.

Here of course we have an "official" Woodsman monument.  Notice how often the fraternal emblem is nestled between two angled upright branches.  And of course it is in the local style with a squared off tree on a base that should be good for another century.

You sometimes run across very similar looking monuments in a cemetery.  In this case there were two nearly identical version of the "Rustic Cross" variant within a few feet of each other. I suppose you could interpret this as just ordering from a standard template but these have the nice combination of standard features and personal touches.  Regards the former we here have the classic Dying Dove on the right hand branch, wing extended upwards.

Keep this image in mind until we reconvene next time.  A couple miles away and across the much wider Catholic - Protestant divide...

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Tree Shaped Tombstone....for a Tree?

The cemetery in Wausau Wisconsin makes you work a bit. It is sprawling, has the newer and older monuments all jumbled together, and has some unusual local "styles", I suspect from the availability of local red granite.  You find some odd gravestones there.  This struck me as the oddest.

Short, squat and made of granite.  Not your usual "tree shaped tombstone".

It was associated with this marker, remembering a husband and wife named Neu.

But it is the top of the stump that was really peculiar.  The inscription reads:

First Tree cut down in this Cemetery by FRED. NEU

Mr. Neu was born in Germany in 1827.  He came to Wisconsin in 1858.  After working a while at a saw mill and as a carpenter he started a furniture business in 1871.

There are several possible connections between Mr. Neu and the cemetery.  He was an alderman so if this was a publicly owned cemetery he may have had a supervisory role.  He also served as coroner, a job which does tend to bring you into contact with the less lively segment of the population.  But the biggest clue is the furniture business.  In times past those who made and sold tables and chairs often did the same for coffins, and served as defacto funeral directors.

Evidently he was involved in the founding of the cemetery, although why he should remember cutting down a specific tree with such fondness that he decided to spend money immortalizing the deed is an interesting question.