Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Scamps and Rascals

I am continuing my mid winter exploration of medieval insults persisting to the modern age.  I just feel like it.

But I thought it would be nice to switch over to some affectionate ones.  The sort of thing you would call your spirited child.  Scamp, scalawag, rascal, ragamuffin, that sort of thing.  All nice little words, no?


Scamp.  First used in the 1780s, it was a term that meant "highway robber".  It probably derived from a similar word that meant "to roam" that descended from scamper.  Scamper meant to run away quickly, specifically to run away from a battle field!  You can trace the word backwards through centuries of cowardly soldiers.  The Flemish shampeeren from the 1600s. And on back through the Old French escamper and all the way to Latin ex campo.  The word decamp is closely related.  The delightful word vamoose followed a similar path from the Latin vadare, to go or to walk hastily. Who knew that military deserters had such a rich linguistic heritage?

Scalawag. The earlier use of this word was to describe a disreputable fellow of little importance.  It combines Wag, for a habitual joker, with Skallag a Scottish term for farm servant.  But Skallag itself was derived from Scalloway, one of the Shetland islands, and was a term used for the runty ponies that the Shetlands are still known for.

Rascal. From 12th century French, where rascaille meant rabble or mob. The implication of it being a sudden outburst as well as the dregs and scrapings of society has raised the possibility of a connection with the Latin rasicare, to scrape. This word also gives rise to rash and razor.

Ragamuffin.  Well now, surely you can call your misbehaving little moppit a ragamuffin without giving offense.....can't you? its original 14th century form it meant "demon".  The devil was often depicted as having a shaggy or "ragged" appearance.  The sense of the word as a term for a "dirty, disreputable boy" came along in the 1580s.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Abe Vigoda Awards

Premature obituaries are hardly a new phenomena.  As soon as it became fashionable to have a printed announcement of someone's demise human error kicked in and mistakes were made.

In the modern era it has actually become more common.  Our electronic age lends itself to both hoaxes and to instantaneous widespread screw ups.  The most famous example of this occurred on 16 April 2003 when was hacked and their working files for obituaries of famous people were released.  Some of them were rather laughable.  Both Dick Cheney and Bob Hope were described as "the Queen Consort" and "the UK's favorite grandmother" as bits and bobs of The Queen Mother's obituary got mixed in.  Fidel Castro's political life was also cast in a somewhat different light when portions of Ronald Reagan's obituary were grafted on.  "Lifeguard, athlete, movie star" are a bit peculiar but it must be said that Fidel was once a promising enough baseball player to attract some interest from professional scouts.

In some cases a premature obit could be regarded as fabulous tribute.  It meant that you had not only attained a level of recognition in this life but that you were also around to read about it.  Having run across a few such examples over the years I thought it would be fun to assemble a group of honorees for The Abe Vigoda Award, given for being the best sport when incorrectly declared dead.


1. Mark Twain.  Although Twain's comments on his death are certainly the most famous in this genre it should be noted that they did not come in response to an official obituary.  In 1897 a reporter was sent to inquire on his status at a time when Twain was incorrectly thought to be in poor health.  In later remarks Twain said that "The report of my death was an exaggeration".  True, but the exaggerating was mostly in this instance being done by Twain himself!  The quote is usually botched with the "..rumors of my death.." format.

2. Rock musicians (group award).
Alice Cooper - "I'm alive and drunk as usual".
Axl Rose - "If I'm dead do I still have to pay taxes?"


1. Friedrich Gulda I confess, I had never heard of this fellow until doing a bit of research on premature obituaries.  He was an Austrian pianist and by all accounts a delightfully eccentric kook. His attire at one recital was said to resemble that of "a Serbian pimp".  In 1999 he faxed an announcement of his death to promote a concert which he then dubbed a "Resurrection Recital" complete with - rather atypically for European classical performances - go go dancers.  As a conspiratorial participant in his supposed demise he does not make the A list but it should be noted that he always said he wanted to die on Mozart's birthday and in 2000 he did just that.

2. The Association of Dead People I am not in this instance pointing a finger at any specific individual responsible for dishonorable reports of premature demise.  No, I am throwing a bouquet of shame at the entire legal system of the Uttar Pradesh region of India.  Evidently it very common practice there to have people declared dead so that others can claim legal deed to their property. Corruption and bureaucratic inertia make it so difficult for average folk to fight this that an Association was formed to combat the predatory scam.


Cats and Number 10 Downing Street seem to be some sort of a thing.

There actually is a position titled Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office given either officially or informally to the cat in residence at the home of the Prime Minister.  This has been on some level true since the time of Henry VII and in recent times there has actually been a small allowance from the Treasury dedicated to the upkeep of said Mouser.  In 1929 this was a reasonable one shilling a day. In the 21st century it has risen to 100 pounds per annum, which begs the question of how many mice the Chief Mouser is actually catching and eating these days.

Humphrey held the post during the Margaret Thatcher era and in 1995 the Government issued as statement that he was missing and presumed dead.  Fortunately he was found idling at the nearby Royal Army Medical College and a statement "from" Humphrey indicated that while he had had a grand time he was happy to be back and was looking forward to the upcoming Parliamentary session.

In 1997 there were reports that Cherie, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, hated the cat so much that she had arranged for it to be killed.  Alan Clark MP demanded on the floor of Parliament that the Government prove that Humphrey was in fact alive and well.  Number 10 complied with photos of The Chief Mouser posing with the day's newspaper.  (The Blairs presumably have never had to arrange a substitute goldfish on short notice....).

Mrs. Blair and Humphrey. From the cat's expression I doubt she was saying "Welcome back".
In November of 2009 Canadian Transportation Minister John Baird caused a brief commotion when he texted "Thatcher has died".  True enough, but he was referring to his cat of the same name.  The Iron Lady soldiered on until 2013.


Third Place

Rudyard Kipling.  When a magazine reported him dead he wrote to them saying: "I have just read that I am dead.  Don't forget to delete me from your list of subscribers."

Second Place

Jon Heder. Best known...actually almost exclusively known for his role as the quirky, dim witted odd ball Napoleon Dynamite Heder responded to reports of his death by saying: "Yeah, and apparently its not true."

First Place and After Lifetime Award Winner

Of course, Abe Vigoda Himself.

Mr Vigoda was described as "the late" in a 1982 issue of People magazine.  The news at the time was widely believed and for reasons that make sense if you think about them for a moment.  Although actually a very athletic fellow he always looked old and tired. His most memorable role was as Tessio in The Godfather, where he was last seen being led away to certain off screen demise.  And he had a role in Joe versus the Volcano, a lamentable bomb that exterminated the careers of all concerned other than Tom Hanks.

In addition to being "dead" longer than anyone else on the list Mr. Vigoda has been a better sport about it than most folks.  After the People magazine screw up he posed on the cover of Variety magazine in a coffin.  He appeared on David Letterman and breathed on a mirror to prove that he only looked dead.  And he seems to have been at least tolerant of the implausible Abe Vigoda is Dead meme that has now lasted 33 years and counting.

If you want to keep score you can go a webpage that is constantly updating a single fact: Abe Vigoda's continued dead or alive status.

Abe will, presumably, turn 94 on 24 February, 2015.  You can wish him a Happy Birthday.  But perhaps it would be wise to check first.

fetch the mirror

Friday, January 23, 2015

Robotic Desk Racers - Part 4.2

Racer C actually might teach the kids a few useful things.  It is a more complicated design, and one that has more potential failure points.  "That could have gone better" is probably the most instructive phrase in robotics.

Unlike the other two which use gear boxes from Barbie Jeeps, this one will (hopefully) be driven by four cordless drills.  It is an old trick from the combat robot days, back then these were mostly used for machines in the 30 to 60 pound weight class, and while the type of drill employed varied, most were 18 volt models.

A while back I picked up a lot of four vintage Black and Decker cordless drills.  Probably circa mid 90s, I was eventually able to ID them as 9.6 volt "Scrugun" cordless screwdrivers.  This seems auspicious, as screwdrivers are set for higher torque and lower RPMs than drills.  The mildewed spec sheet that came with these suggests they have a rating for 1500 RPM, and that promisingly, the clutch only engages when the screwdriver is pressed forward onto the screw.  Earlier "hacks" of screwdrivers I had undertaken were fussy this way, you had to disable the clutch otherwise the gears would disengage when the unit was put under sudden load.

Several challenges were present with this design, and they exceeded the skills and tools available for our class.  So it was down to my underground lair/shop to fab a few parts.  I am in matters mechanical capable enough to highlight my ignorance, but only because the latter is such a large object.

For axles it was necessary to have something that could be fitted into the drill "chuck" and tightened down securely, and also to have a means of attaching the wheel in a solid fashion. Many years ago, in the twilight of robotic combat, there was a lot of "stuff" for sale.  I purchased in disassembled form a robot named "Amish Rebellion".  I have been using the parts for various things ever since.

Among many other components there were some swell axles.  Some with pointed "Ben Hur" style tips, others without.  I needed to modify them for our purposes.  In order it was time to: Turn them down on the lathe, grind the fit point into a triangular shape that would mate well with the drill chuck, then cut them off to equal length.

The last step took a long time.  I guess these were some kind of hardened steel alloy.

The final set up also includes a bronze bushing to support the far end of the axle.  And a mounting system will be "McGivered" from a U-bolt and some metal plumber's tape.

Drill motors, wheels, axles and chuck key ready to go.

Base is cut.  The wooden blocks will have bronze bushings supporting the far end of the axles.  This machine is about 2 feet wide.  B is similar.  A with the big wheels is 3 feet wide.  The hallways we will race in are 11 feet wide.   That leaves 48 inches of clearance divided between the racers and the walls.  That will be interesting at the turns.

Steady progress, but as always we will be down to the deadline on completion.

Robotic Desk Racers - Part 4.1

Today we left Racer A off to one side as work progressed on B and C.

It turns out that I was mistaken on the gearboxes we had installed on B. They were not 6 volt versions, they were 12 volt.  Specifically they were gearboxes from a "Raptor 700 Yamaha" kiddy toy. Of course this means the wheels we have on are not big enough.  So we have to overvolt the motors to 24 volts to compensate.  Off with the 12 volt control board and on with the 24 volt version with the Victor 883 controllers.

After a brief lecture on Watt's Law and how it defines the Promise and Perils of over-volting.....

24 volt control board installed.

Dummy proof, or at least, dummy resistant main power switch and power buss bars.

It has been a great help to be able to use the drills and drivers from the school shop.  Here we have Racer B just a few connections away from a test drive.

And that is where we left it.  I think we would have gotten her up and going but one of my better students had to miss the first half hour of build session.  He is some kind of athlete it seems and had to go for pre-participation concussion screening. If he started talking about the classes I teach (he is also in my Dungeons and Dragons group) they probably held him over for a few more in depth queries.

Oh well, next session we should have A and B doing speed trials.....

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Elementary, Mr. Bill

My stuffed squirrel mascot, Mr. Bill, always gets a nice Christmas present.  He brings nothing but happiness into the world so the chances of making Santa's Naughty List are minimal.  I on the other hand would rather like some dark organic material, not coal on Christmas morning but some swell anaerobically preserved Roman stuff when I go off digging in May.

This year Bill got this outfit:

It is intended to be Pilgrim garb, note the archaic collar and the useless buckle on the front of the hat. But actually I think the hat looks more like a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker special.  I post a photo of same in tribute to the fourth season of Sherlock starting filming in the UK this month.

As you can tell, hats are something of a problem for Bill.  In addition to a fairly large cranium - one has to store all those birdfeeder cheat codes someplace after all - Bill has fragile ears.  This outfit is actually a slightly modified wine bottle cover.

So I got to thinking.  And not having stopped myself in time I went on the internet to look up "Squirrel Costumes".  The visual results tend to fall into three categories.  Things you are Glad you Saw.  Things you wish you could UnSee.  And things you hope aliens monitoring our civilization from afar Never See. From category the first I offer up a few other wine bottle get ups that I think have some potential...

 Basic.  The short sleeves would fit his arms better than the Pilgrim outfit.
 Again with the arm issue, but Bill would look swell in Fonzi mode.
 It would be a shame to hide his luxuriant, ebony pelt under the monk's robe, but still, cool.
Honestly he would probably look better in the bridal gown....

Monday, January 19, 2015

Japes, Jabs and Jibes

I am continuing my mid winter series on medieval insults surviving into the modern era.  Why?  Not sure really. Perhaps just because being cooped up indoor by the cold I have fewer distractions and actually get around to looking into the odd questions that occur to me.

For instance, after launching my inquiries with the marvelous word Jackanapes I got to wondering if it had some relationship with the word "Japes". And for that matter were Japes, Jibes and Jive all cousins of some etymological sort?

A Jape is a joke, jest, trick or deceit.  It can be used as either a noun or a verb, the latter being the act of joking, etc.  So of course it is exactly the sort of thing that a Jackanapes would do.  But Jape is not derived from Jackanapes.  Jape originates from Old French, either from  "japer" which means to howl or scream, or from "gaber" which meant to mock or deride.

I blush slightly to report that from its late 14th century origins the word Jape took the etymological low road for a the mid 15th century it had bawdy implications including the meaning "to have sex with".  The indispensable Online Etymology Dictionary whispers that it then "disappeared from polite usage" before being revived in its current sense of a witty insult.

Jibe can have a similar meaning, some sort of taunt, and is likely derived from the same root sources. But oddly it has an alternate meaning as well.  To "jibe" with something is to be in tune with it, or in agreement with it.  The OED suggests a variant of the word "chime" for its sense of being in harmony.  Perhaps the nautical use of a "jib sail" to help steer a ship contributed as well.

Jive was probably just a mistaken form of Jibe, but it has taken on an independent life.  In its journey through the linguistic world of early 20th century Black American culture it became a description for a style of lively jazz music, perhaps of a sort meant to trick the ear?  Since then it has returned to its base meaning of some sort of falsehood, and has dropped out of use entirely other than in retro forms of entertainment.  I recall the word still being in occasional used in the late 1970s, but keep in mind that I grew up about as far away, culturally, as one could from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Jab is the Scottish variant of a Middle English word "jobben" which meant to jab, thrust or peck. It is occasionally used to indicate an insult but something a bit more harmful than a jape or a jibe.  But I also note that term has oddly become specific for the process of giving immunizations.  My UK friends speak of "having their jabs".  Here in the States we would say we had "had our shots".

Culturally this means something but for the life of me I don't know what.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Robotic Desk Racers - Part Three

A novel experiment this session.  I made up a work list.  Specific tasks to accomplish with my estimate of how many kids could effectively work on each one.  I let them sign up for what they wanted to do.  Sixth graders first, then seventh, then eight.  Within a class it was alphabetical order of sign up.  Next week the grades will be reversed and the kids will sign up in anti-alphabetical order.  It seemed to work out pretty well.

As always, we could have put an extra half hour to good use.

Racer A needed some reinforcement.  Here the kids are "under the hood".

I have to say, they have done a good job on this one.  The wiring issues have been resolved and it is now fully operational.  The test drive they took over the anticipated "Grand Prix" course through the hallways came in at just under 1 minute 30 seconds.  That is about what I was aiming for so I do not think we will have to bump the power up to 24 volts.

Most of the effort today was on Racer B, and we were fairly close to having it operational too.  The motor/gearbox/wheel/mount units ready to attach:

Liberal quantities of wood glue and drywall screws have them securely on, and the desk attached to the platform.

We need to string wire from the drive units to the speed controllers, add a battery mount and a main power switch.  This is at most one hour of work assuming nothing gets broken.  Here we have units A and B next to each other...

Unit A on the right certainly looks bigger and meaner, but I think they will be competitive for speed. B has, I think, gearboxes designed for 6 volts so running them at 12 will be a 100% over volt and should compensate for the roughly 50% smaller wheel diameter.  B is more fragile, so it will be important to not let lunk heads try and hop on for a ride during the race!

Unit C will be harder, but we have five sessions left, so I think it will be possible if I fab a couple of custom adapters for the wheels.  B and C do not have any spare gearboxes, so they are on the NSP engineering program.  No Spare Parts means any serious mishap is fatal.