Monday, February 8, 2016

On the Clarity of Memories

I wonder how much of what we experience in life is either not perceived at all, or is remembered only briefly.  Phone numbers, inter twined small town genealogies, what I had for breakfast. The kind of information that I either don't need to have available to me, or that can be quickly referenced by my smart phone or my smarter wife.

But sometimes there are moments of clarity; occasions when you see, hear and perceive more than usual.  Often they are times of stress.

Scenario One.

It is two generations ago.  I am in college and getting ready to take the MCAT, the standardized test that Medical School admissions folks look at with such great interest.  I have no memory of studying for it - nowadays I strongly suspect it is standard practice to do extensive prep.

But I do recall the early evening before the test.  I think it would be spring of my Junior year.  In any case it was a day with the pleasant warmth of Spring.  I walked over to the banks of the Mississippi river on the University of Minnesota campus.  There are steep limestone bluffs there and if you walk along a little path down below you are soon in an area where you can have solitude.

I had along a book of  Tolkien poetry and remember reading one of his early efforts that later mutated into the Hobbit, a piece called "The Hoard".  I had a black marker pen with me for some reason and I amused myself drawing little runes on flat bits of rock and setting them up in a row. Rather ritualistic now that I think of it. Down in a river valley you get an interesting juxtaposition of stimuli.  There is a steady hum of traffic and urban activity, but you can't see any of it.  It seems to be a combination of sound that travels over the surface of the water and vibration that comes up from underneath you. The limestone where I sat was dry, warm, lit by a sun that was just starting to dip down to a descent that would give me full illumination.  I was calm and relaxed.  Justifiably so as it turns out, I did very well the next day.  Not too long after that I was starting my First Year studies in a stark, modern building atop the same cliff.

Scenario Two.  A few months back.

It is generally true in medicine, and particularly so in Emergency Medicine, that problems are rarely the fault of one individual.  Multiple small mistakes cumulatively add up to a crisis.  The patient, the EMS crew, the triage nurse, they all have roles to play.  But in the end it is my job to put all together and deal with it, because ultimately it is my responsibility.  And make no mistake, doctors are fallible.  Did I spend too much time on that other patient because it was a charming, cute kid or an uncharming,demanding drug seeker?  Was my mind on something else when a crucial clue was briefly offered up to me, only to be replaced by a whole different set of information on another patient?

It works much the same in non medical crises too.  A situation you think is under control is not, and you are at the "purple and gasping" stage of things.

You have to dig in and deal with it.  Figuring out how things went awry has to wait.

I find myself again sitting on a rock.  I am having a very direct conversation with somebody whose job it was to manage a problem.  Said individual has gone on vacation and is not sure when a critical deadline is.  And expects that everything will work out somehow.  And has a dodgy cell phone connection.

This time is is not Spring but Fall.  The weather is as I sit is changing from still and humid into a cool, breezy day with storm clouds swirling like angry jellyfish overhead.  A nearby factory has a retro noon hour whistle and I hear it sound, sending rising octaves up into the charged atmosphere.

I'm in a little park and in front of me is somebody's failed project, a sort of "water garden" that was once supposed to high light native plants but is now just a muddy puddle with weeds.  Probably it got that way due to some combination of distraction, diversion of resources, maybe some kind of blight or fungus, hard to say. The plants look sad and ill.

This being Wisconsin there is a brief whiff of brewing beer that brushes past me.  Hops and malt doing their subtle, aromatic dance.

What I am hearing over the phone does not make me happy.  How long has the "patient" been slipping into distress?  What really is the underlying condition here?  How much time do we have before Full Code, an event from which so very few recover in a decent state?

I take a few deep breaths, the air around me having cooled considerably during the half hour chat. A few pleasantries are exchanged of course, but it is time for direct instructions, repeated several times. This must happen.  It must happen by this point in time.  I must be given confirmation that this has happened.  I must have this confirmation by this point in time.

It is not me at my best.  I am in default mode a mildly introverted guy whose take on the world around him is mostly whimsical.  But when I must do so I can throw a switch and go into Emergency mode.  I can be Direct.  I can ignore extraneous input when necessary.  I can be bossy.

If you live your entire life this way you will not have many friends.  But in the unusual circumstances of an impending Code Blue it is not only acceptable but necessary.  I have never had a patient that I have pulled back from the brink ever complain about it.  I consider such griping unlikely but in theory it could happen.  I simply regard is as far less probable than a patient I let die coming back to tell me what a kind and gentle bedside manner I had when they were blue and gasping.

I am musing on allegory this week.  Those few who know the back story will understand and should not feel a need to comment. The land of Allegory can be a difficult place but also a whimsical one.  I find myself, crisis now past, still sitting on a solid rock, and still smelling the faint hints of brewing beer, a Promise of better times ahead with my treasured friends and family.

Friday, February 5, 2016

FIRST Robotics Progress Report Four

Well we got a little off track.

There are so many fussy little things to consider in this business.  For instance, after we tore apart the proof of concept version of our robot and rebuilt in metal we noticed something odd.  Forward and reverse were backwards.  The software team offered to fix this on their side but after a bit of head scratching we figured out that when we cut the frame down and rebuilt it our 30 inch by 30 inch drive base simply had the front and back panels put on in reverse.  Simple fix, just switch the red and black wires going into the drive motors.

We also lost a day to.....snow.  Yes as a school related activity when school is cancelled we don't meet.  As a consolation the blizzard was pretty wide spread so one assumes most teams we are competing against (and in FIRST fashion cooperating with) also had to stand down for the day.

But work goes on.

Problem.  Drilling aluminum makes nasty little shavings.  You must have your electronics elsewhere when you are creating this sort of debris as it will make expensive things like speed controllers go up in smoke.

Solution.  Turn the robot over.  Kick it a few times.  Run the dust buster.  Wipe the inside clean with paper towels.

In our new Dark Age so few kids know how to use even simple tools  I enjoy turning them loose with a new one.  "Have you ever operated an angle grinder before?"

We have not actually used our shop capabilities fully yet, but have started to fabricate a few parts with our CNC mill.  This fairly simple hub needed to be made because I did not get around to ordering the pre made version.  So, lets make us some...

I mentioned our electronics.  They are competition ready and mounted on a board that is easy to drop on and off the robot thanks to some easy quick connectors going to the battery and motors.

So overall things are going well.  Except, well except for the bumpers.

For safety reasons all robots are required to have bumpers of specified size and construction. Because you have to be able to change "team colors" quickly you need to have one set in red and one in blue. There is no creativity in their design or construction.  It is a tedious task to build them.  And sometimes bored workers do less than perfect work.

We have had no end of problems with these darned things.  In part it was because we built them before we had a clear idea of the exact size of the robot.  Kind of like buying clothes before your child is born I guess.  They were sloppy work and our attempts to fit them with what looked like a clever mounting system....just fell apart.

I think tomorrow the old bumpers go into the dumpster. I shall laugh gleefully while tossing them.  If the kids are supposed to learn things perhaps one thing to learn is that on occasion a project can get so messed up that the best thing to do is scrap and start over.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


It's good to learn a new word from time to time.  And recently one of my archaeology pals gave me a swell one:  Saggar.

This is what one looks like:

Basically a saggar is a simple ceramic vessel in which other ceramics are fired in the kiln.  They turn up pretty often in UK archaeological sites.  But while the concept is quite old, the name seems to be more recent.  The saggar protects the pottery from the damaging effects of uneven heat.  The word is said to be a contraction of "safeguard".

An alternate form of the word is "sagger".  Wikipedia lists two other definitions of this word as being a Soviet era anti-tank missile, and.....a person who wears his baggy pants down low...

Oy.  A belt, my style oblivious friend, would be a prudent safeguard for you.

Monday, February 1, 2016

In search of Medium Foot

It is really quite cold in Wisconsin in January.  So when we were out for a walk recently we were surprised to see this:

We followed the tracks for a couple of blocks before we lost them.  Quite a few of the foot prints had that odd drag mark in back of the heel.  What was a barefoot shuffling person doing out on such a frosty day?  Or was this track made by something like this?

I guess this was a fashion fad that I had missed.  Just as well, I think these are creepy.

Friday, January 29, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Progress Report Three

Going from wood to metal.

We had our FIRST robot in reasonably complete form by the time of an open house for our hosts Machine Tool Camp.  It hopped over obstacles and fired a ball more or less on target.  But after a while the pounding it took started to be too much and efficiency declined.  You can only ask so much from wood, plastic pipe and duct tape.

So the team tore it down.  It was remarkable how fast this process went.  Almost two weeks to build it up.  20 minutes to reduce it to parts.  An observer noted that it was like watching hyenas going after a carcass!

Time to redo in metal.  Fire up the plasma cutter!

As our remade robot started to increasingly resemble a tank we got to wondering just how much of an issue we would have with radio (wifi actually) reception under all that metal.  I asked several mavens and got various answers.  So I told the software team to try running the controls with the electronics inside a metal pipe.  Some useful data was obtained.

I have always liked to have a bit of wood in my robots.  Old School I guess.  And I think it also buffers vibrations to some extent.  I told the kids to paint it whatever color they liked.  A nausea inducing yellow?  Well, OK.  Here several sets of hands are crowding in to ratchet down bolts on the back frame element of the robot.

We found that the standard "kit" that rookie teams get from FIRST, while great in other ways, is not so hot regards frame building.  It took way too much time to fashion the back part of the frame.  After a team discussion we opted to go a different direction for the rest of it.  We had already decided on using EMT conduit for the sweep arm.  Heck, lets just get a heavier gauge version of it and complete both sides of the frame with one pipe bend each.  We obviously have some trimming and support elements to add on the front half of the robot, but you can see the basic shape of things and I personally think it is rather elegant.

Note the ball set in what will be the launching pad for same, also the new and better protected crawler motor mount.

FIRST updates have been weekly but if we stay on track it might be possible to have more worth showing after our long Saturday session.  

At the end of the work day we load up our cart and roll our tool cart into what must be the finest storage area any FIRST team on earth can claim.....our own walk in safe!  The building we work in used to be a shoe factory and presumably this is where the payroll was kept.  

The actual robot is getting too big to easily move in and out, so it rides up to the second floor in a freight elevator.  What? You mean all high school robotics teams don't have their own freight elevator?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Sometimes words just won't behave themselves.  I think I have something clever figured out about the origins of a particular word or phrase, then darn it all I have to go and find out that I was wrong.

Consider the words villain and vilify.  Now it would make sense for vilification to be the process by which you define somebody as a villain.  And being clever I had a whole rant worked out tracing the word back to villa, the Roman word for a small town or in certain senses for a country estate.

It is reasonable to assume that the owners of villas in the Roman era considered their laborers to be uncouth bumpkins.  And that was the meaning that carried through from Middle Latin villanus for farmhand, into Old French as vilain and across the channel to England where it reclaimed the extra l and became villain.

The sense of a villain being crooked or nefarious is a fairly modern development.  I assume that as we became a more urban culture it got easier to assign negative attributes to rural peasants.  Its not as if quality people really had to interact with them any more.....

But to vilify, that seems to be a different thing than saying nasty stuff about villains.  The meaning seems to fit, to vilify being to "lower in worth or value".  The sense of slandering and speaking evil of came along in the late 1500s.  But the root word here is not villa but vilis. a late Latin word meaning cheap or base.  The same word of course also giving us vile.

Or so various etymological sources I referenced claim.  But sometimes with spellings and meanings mutating back and forth I have to wonder if the scholars really know everything.

Chedworth Roman villa in the Cotwolds.  I hope to visit in the spring.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Train to Ostia

You can't plan for every eventuality when you travel abroad, but I consider it an enjoyable obligation to prep for as many possibilities as I can manage.

I learn about the places I will visit.  I query Google earth for restaurants, bus stops and laundromats near our accommodations.  I try to pick up enough of the language to not be totally helpless.  And I talk with friends who have been to where I am going, with particular attention to any problems they have encountered.

Getting ready for Italy was a project.  Six months of on again off again listening to language tapes got me to where I mostly knew what was going on.  But you have to set your goals realistically.  And since I could not hope to attain fluency I concentrated on certain areas.  Buying stuff, asking for directions, please and thank you.

And with the little extra brain capacity I could spare I decided to address an issue that several friends had mentioned to me:  Problems on trains and buses.

It is fairly easy to get pick pocketed on public transportation in Italy.  And more disturbingly, men sometimes behave in a very lewd manner to women they perceive as being tourists.  Or maybe all women, I guess it depends on what bus you are on.

So I asked a Brit friend for advice.  Prim and proper as she is, my expectations were limited.  But she had lived in Rome and worked at their Embassy, so I figured she would have a few handy phrases.

Boy, did she ever.

This is a polite blog, so I won't unleash my entire arsenal, but for example:

"S______, non male. Quelle e mia moglio"  

I am saying here that this behaviour is not OK and that this is my wife.  The omitted word reminds me that I am due for a colonoscopy next year.

"F_____, andare a giocare con gli uomini."

The omitted word here is ironically an acronym we use for Federal Income tax with holdings.  The rest of the phrase expresses surprise that the individual is even interested in women.

Well, you get the idea.  I actually felt reasonably well prepared.  And as such I assumed that I would never have to deploy these linguistic weapons.

Oh, but on one occasion I was wondering if I might have to.....

We took the train out to visit Ostia on the outskirts of Rome.  Fares are ridiculously cheap in Italy and as physical conditions go the cars are OK.  And crowded, with a combination of locals and folks going further out the line to the beaches at Lido.

A guy sat down next to us.  He looked to be about 50 and I got a sort of East European vibe off of him.  Also some other odd vibes.  He was diligently doing something with his phone and seemed to be surreptitiously angling it to take pictures.  Well, I took a quick look with my peripheral vision and sure enough, he had just taken a picture of an Asian tourist gal across the aisle from us.

I could not tell if the picture was focused on her or on her suitcase but it struck me as creepy. And as he scrolled back and forth on his pictures I could see another similar image...a young couple standing together in a different and more crowded car, again with suitcases.

This guy was also sending and receiving lots of texts and doing some sort of Italian language version of Words with Friends.

I had by now decided that he was either a pervert with an Asian gal luggage fetish, and I must assume such people exist, or perhaps the ringleader of a band of pickpockets.

About half way through the trip he inexplicably got up and moved across the aisle, to the spot just vacated by the Asian tourist.  Now his eyes roved here and there.  And met mine.

I only intended to convey the message: "Don't go taking pictures of mia moglio, dude". But just maybe a few stray telepathic vibes from my auxiliary Italian vocabulary carried over.

When we got off at Ostia we were not set upon by Artful Dodgers, and a quick survey of our belongings - all well secured by the by - showed them to be present and accounted for.

Speaking with some locals afterwards they agreed that it was all rather peculiar.  One theory put forward was that because the trains are indeed often targeted by thieves and such, perhaps this was a plain clothes police officer.  Given the renowned efficiency of the Italian police force getting immediately spotted by a casual observer and spending most of your time goofing around with a phone would be about par for the course.  The Japanese luggage fetish was presumably just a hobby.