Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Blizzard Etiquette

(This post is dedicated to my current and former neighbors who flee all this for sunny climes either short term or for good.  You know who you are.)

Wisconsin.  January.  Periodically the Elements conspire against you.  One week it is bitter cold.  The next week a thick blanket of snow.  Some weeks both.  

We are not as tough as the pioneers who settled the frontier.  They were enduring all this in log cabins and while wearing itchy woolen garments that probably did not get washed until Spring. But a bit of the pioneer spirit lingers on; in this place, and at this time of year neighbors have to help each other out.

There are of course Unwritten Rules.  As a retired guy with a snowblower I have the ability to get out and clear snow on a very flexible schedule.  My own does not take long.  But what about Other People's Snow?

The sidewalk that runs the length of the block is fair game.  We all want the postman to be able to get through.  Here is "Boreas" my faithful machine, having just cleared it down to a slip free cement surface.

On the other hand, plowing from that sidewalk up to people's front doors would seem a bit presumptuous....that is their individual property, not the collective Commons.

But what to do about this situation?

Here a homesteader's earlier snow removal efforts have been foiled by the city snow plows which go along and, in the necessary task of clearing the roads, throw up big ramparts of ice and chunky style snow.  As  you can see, people's recycling bins get entombed.  So do the entrances to drive ways and the place where sidewalks meet the street.  The etiquette here is a little trickier.

Keeping the sidewalks clear to the streets follows the same rules as above.  So I plowed out the two corners on my side.  Going around to the other two corners on the back side of the block would be showing up my neighbors, and as such a bit of bad form.  Unless of course you have elderly neighbors on the back corners.  Or you know they are out of town.  I am not the only person on the block with a snow blower and it would not do to deprive others of an opportunity for minor service to the community. 

Clearing at least one end of the alley is a high priority.  Otherwise anything short of a monster truck is not going to be able to negotiate that last crucial two feet that will get them onto the city street and off to work.

Recycling bins are a tough call.  It would not do for a person to miss the every two week opportunity to get rid of empty cans and bottles.  If you know a neighbor well enough to not be shocked or curious about how many clinking empties you have to move to get the way clear for the recycling truck, go ahead.  If you don't know them that well, best not to.

That's better.

Anthropologists could study the ways of this little snow bound tribe for quite some time.  I have for instance not addressed the touchy matter of how soon to start plowing.  You want to wait long enough for the precipitation to stop.  No sense having to plow twice.  But if you wait too long the other members of the clan might beat you to it, the whine of their motors starting up a gentle rebuke to your by-the-hearth sloth.  

Another blizzard dealt with.  One step closer to spring.  I hang up my snow dusted coveralls until the next round.

Monday, January 16, 2017

FIRST Robotics 2017 - Build Season Week One

We had a few bumps in the road but have made good progress.  Regards the former, we lost one work day due to weather, and had some of our parts go missing for a while.  But as was the case last season we get a lot done on Saturdays.  We in fact have our three main systems all working in prototype stage and have our competition drive frame and electronics partly done.

Evolution of a robot.

The game this year involves manipulating these big plastic gears around.  We have to deliver them onto this springy thing.

We also have to collect the gears.  Our system for doing this involves having them drop down between these two plastic plates.  The back plate is designed to be springy and flexible so as to encourage the gear to rebound down into the space.  Oh, that's just not true.  We did not design it that way we just built it out of scrap stuff on hand and noticed that function as a happy accident.

Another feature of the challenge involves tracking with a light sensor.  The "target" area has reflective tape on it.  I just happened to catch a good flash off it with this shot.  The on board cameras of the robot will also be looking for this.

The final version of course will have a polycarbonate front plate.  Here we were just mocking it up built on last years drive frame and using plywood.  The gear holder is also wood at present, but does function to cleanly drop the gear on cue.

Another aspect of the challenge involves, not kiddin' here, the robot scaling a rope.  So, about 120 pounds hauling itself four feet up in the air in fifteen seconds.  We actually had parts on hand that let us build this proof of concept lifting device.  

It is helpful to have great big ceiling beams when you want to test a winch.  It lifted more than the required weight and at a very brisk pace.  

Wooden prototypes are OK, but the process of converting over to nice neat finished work will take us a few weeks, even if unexpected difficulties do not arise.

They always seem to.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Leinenkugels

Leineinkugel's Brewery has been making the residents of Chippewa Falls happy since its establishment in 1867.  It has the classic location.  On a creek, edge of town, right next to a nice hillside with a stone face.  So of course there was a brewery cave.

But this cave is elusive, the stuff of rumor and myth.

Supposedly when renovations were done on the brewery circa 2000 the cave was briefly exposed.  It was said to be in a bad state, wet and partly silted in.  I did not have a chance to see it before it was sealed off.

A while back I ran across an 1871 newspaper article that describes the cave.  It was said that it 

"..commences just back of the brewery and is one hundred feet long and twenty wide, built in the solid rock.  It is 49 feet from the cellar to the surface and through that there is an air hole of about one foot.."

It sounds like a classic brewery cave, but behind the current brewery I can see no clear evidence of it.  So my hopes were raised when I saw this going on:

No cave in sight - by my reckoning it is about 50 feet to the left.  But that "solid rock" that was described is still there.

Note, I don't want anybody bothering the good folks at Leinenkugels so I set this post aside until construction was finished.  There is no point in nosing about looking for a cave.  Neither the entrance nor the vent hole are visible in 2016.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The National Enquirer Gets Real

Before Christmas I noted with bemusement that our local supermarket had stopped selling Tabloids in the checkout aisle and had been using the same racks to sell something that was at least initially labelled as "Adult Coloring Books".  Well as I suspected the tag was in error and soon replaced.  Near as I can figure these are conventional coloring books for kids.  I hope.

But the persistence of this phenomena - cheery coloring books on racks advertising lurid Celebrety Newz - continues to distract me.

Has the National Enquired been seized by a sudden fit of absolute honesty?

Monday, January 9, 2017 how do they build this?

And we have an answer.

After months of baroque speculation based on the flimsiest of hints we have received the "specs" on this year's FIRST Robotics Challenge.  The answer is below, but before we get to that I wanted to go on record with my own predictions.  Trust me, 'cause the Internet never lies, my prediction was made well before the official reveal.  I take my kudos and lumps as I earn them. Maybe I will even give my predictions a grade.

My Prediction 1/4/2017

With a theme of "Steam Punk" it is reasonable to assume lots of gears, implausible blimps, shiny brass stuff.  But the actual game has to be something that can be set up in the same venues - usually gyms and arenas - as in years past.  So no pools of water and I consider flying drones and actual blimps to be impractical.

I say there will be some kind of "coal mine" from which lumps of "fuel" are removed and put into a "boiler".  This will require some kind of grabber arms and/or conveyor belts.  I also expect there will be a series of ramps that have to be moved into position, or in the case of a defense strategy, moved out of positions that the opposing team would prefer.  The "end game" should involve placing some sort of gears onto a big peg board.  The boiler provides an amount of "energy" that varies with the amount of "coal" in it.  The gears provide some kind of multiplier of this.  The final style touch will be a fake blimp rising up a structure in the fashion of those old fashioned strength measuring games at carnivals.  You know, the ones where you swing a hammer and something scoots up to perhaps ring a bell...

The reality 1/7/2017

The Reveal Video:

I did OK on my predictions.  Fuel, ramps.  The fake blimp is stylised but the spinning rotors are certainly trying for it.   I give myself a B.

Our first (FIRST) build session was a bit chaotic but it was the chaos of many ideas flying around.  Stay tuned.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Kicking out the Elves, Bringing in the Robots

After a pre-season where we have done as much as possible to get ready, the hectic FIRST Robotics Build season begins in just a few days.  We have a fabulous work space, but it does have the minor down side of being shared with a community Christmas program that does not clear out until very late in December.  It is rather fun to be headquartered in Santa's Workshop but it means we can't really unpack everything and get ready to work until rather shortly before the 7 January Kick Off date, aka The End of the World as We Know It.  

As we will be spending a ridiculous amount of time here over the next few weeks and months it behooves us to be both comfortable and efficient.

We have as our headquarters a rather unusual space.  All the serious machines - manual and CNC mills, lathe, welding, paint and carpentry shops, are on the first floor.  Take the freight elevator (yes, really) up to the second story and there is a big open space.  This is a former warehouse. Our little stash of robot stuff was huddled off in one corner.

We expect to set up a mock playing field here.  The pillars will make for extra realism in drive practice.  The game of course changes every year, and on occasion calls for firing beach balls and such at targets higher than this ceiling.  You just never know...

On a recent night we got the team together.  As usual there was plenty to do.  Inventory parts. Dismantle last year's robot down to a drive frame for future test purposes.  Haul desks and work tables into position.  We thought we had some storage shelves but these had disappeared...I suspect the Elves nicked 'em.  So in keeping with our team philosophy a rugged storage unit was cobbled together out of pallets and scrap lumber on hand. 

A few pictures of the last "pre-season" work session.

I anticipate the fluorescent lighting, wide expanses and constant motion will continue to challenge my photographic skills..

One end of the scrap lumber storage system has a wire dispenser.  The spools are of differing wire gauges.  I think they even organized them left to right by size.

On the back of the storage rack are slots for a couple of robot building staples.  The slotted aluminum stock is called 80/20.  It is extremely adaptable for building things.  Kind of like a giant, sturdy Erector set.  The clown colored Styrofoam tubes are "pool noodles".  Believe it or not these are standard, required elements for FIRST robotics.  Each robot has padded bumpers to prevent damage to humans or other machines when inexperienced drivers get a bit carried away.

Just tidying up.  We have the ability this year to leave work out on the benches, but have to be careful not to abuse the privilege.  Floor is clean.  Our team banner is hung from the rafters. This too is something of a "statement" of what kind of work we do.  A home made flag hanging from a century old one foot square wooden beam.  It is held on by big metal C-clamps that would easily hold several hundred pounds instead of a few ounces of red cloth!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Coinage of the Late American Empire

I had no intention of doing three straight postings that featured coins.  Its just one of those things that happens.

Appearances aside this technically is not a hoard of coins.  The strict definition of a hoard in the archeology sense is a collection of coins all intentionally buried in one location.  This agglomeration represents one calendar year's worth of picking up scruffy looking coins while out for walks.

I know that this, along with a heightened interest in all things relating to squirrels, is a warning sign of becoming An Old Guy.  But I justify it in several ways.  I need walks.  It actually is free money. And it keeps my archeology "eye" in tune year round so that when I arrive at Vindolanda for my annual dig I am all set to spot minor variations in shape, color and texture. A closer look:

There is much variation of course, not only between denominations but with different ages of coins, differing degrees of damage from the circumstances of where they ended up, and so forth. But there were a few things I noticed that had parallels to the Roman coins I find when excavating.

Here is a fairly typical late Roman coin as it comes out of the ground after 1600 years or so:

Not much to look at really.  It is copper, or an alloy of same.  Basically its the equivalent of our modern penny.  Note the greenish tint, this is copper oxide and is the natural consequence of aging copper.   Some of our pennies show a bit of this:

Notice that these are somewhat older coins.  56 years in the case of the specimen on the left.  But newer pennies...

Yuck.  They just get a sort of dirty coating on them.  In fairness I suspect some of this is from the salt we so liberally use on our roads and sidewalks in the winter.  But there is also a very different make up to modern pennies.  Lets take a closer look..

This coin is mere months old, and despite obviously living a rough life there is nary a smidge of oxidization on it.  In fact, the thin shiny coating of whatever alloy is on it simply is a thin wash covering up a core of some other cheesy stuff.  Note the beard and side burns of "Dishonest Abe". 

This process of using a thin coat of (apparently) valuable metal over a base core is as old as coinage itself, being practiced not only by counterfeiters but also by dishonest mint workers since ancient days.  In a previous post we have visited a few examples.  Here is a silver denarius with a crappy base metal surprise waiting for the outer layer to wear through.

It has of course been many years since we have had any real silver coinage in our own currency. Our financial wizards make no effort to hide the process, and the copper - more or less - inside a modern day dime can be seen just by looking at the edge.  Or wait until it wears through a bit. From my 2016 ambling I present a spiffy new dime that somebody dropped soon after it came into circulation.  Next to it is a tired and dingy specimen with its copper showing through on the lower edge.

Archaeologists are probably guilty of reading too much into coins as a barometer of societal health.  Not every devaluation of currency is another marker for Decline and Fall.  We just don't consider coins to be as important now as in times past.  There are even periodic attempts to eliminate the penny as a useless anachronism.  If you dropped a penny circa 1900 it was the equivalent of about five minutes of salary at the then typical "dollar a day" wages.  Today with the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour a penny is what you would earn every five seconds. No wonder people don't bother picking them up.

And of course we are rapidly approaching a cashless economy where physical manifestations of wealth are used less often than a swipe of the plastic or the entry of a few numbers onto a screen. 

So I can't make the devalued coinage of the current American Empire into anything profound. Money is less important than it once was, at least money as the Romans would recognize it.

Whether this is progress or not is debatable.