Archive for the 'Memories' Category

Looking Back

Rear View Mirror

On reflection, today’s object is an intro to one of my hobbies.

I was slowly walking home from breakfast at the corner when I spied today’s Object at Hand in the street. A plastic rear view mirror from some toy vehicle that had come loose and been run over a time or two.

I was walking slowly because of a lingering disease. Adult onset mono that had been misdiagnosed by a series of doctors who never considered that an old dude like me would come down with such a stereotypical adolescent ailment. Anyway, a couple of months after the symptoms got acute, I could walk to the corner.

As soon as I saw this bit of plastic with its evocative printed decal, I flashed on a lifetime of travels. I began a travel blog back before most people knew the word “blog,” and wrote the code using Notepad. Before the blog, I would send emails to a list of friends with daily reports. Here is My Travel Page.

I didn’t always love travel. As a child, I was always car sick. Back then we didn’t have air conditioning. During my tween and teen years, we didn’t even have rear windows in the car! So it was an ordeal for myself and my parents to go on the few road trips they dared: Once to Orlando (not including Disney, but backstage at Cape Kennedy as Apollo 13 was on the pad) and once up to Michigan to visit a great aunt. Plus an annual jaunt of 8 hours (back in those pre-interstate days) down to the Ozarks. Specifically Bull Shoals Lake just over the Arkansas border. Nope, not Silver Dollar City. I didn’t get to an amusement park until I was in my 30’s.

But once I had a car of my own, we did drive. In our current sedan we have recreationally visited every contiguous state except Rhode Island and Wisconsin. We often travel the lesser roads, state and local highways. It takes longer to get to our nominal destination, but we really get to see America.


Paper Springs

Napkin Trash

Today’s object is one I compulsively make and leave behind in restaurants. I fold those paper napkin wrappers into these square paper springs out of old habit.

I learned how to fold these from construction paper in third or fourth grade, as a device to make greeting cards more dimensional, to elevate a cut-out shape above the field.

Tractor FeedBut it became a fidget-habit when I started working in the real world. We had dot matrix computer printers back then. They were noisy, and the folded continuous paper had to be fed from a box using perforations designed to fit tractor cogs on the printer, usually on micro-perforated separable strips. So after printing what had to be printed, we would remove that side strip with the holes.

I am a fidgetor. My hands are rarely at rest when my mind is moving. So given this bounty of paper strips, I would fold them into long paper springs and leave them everywhere.

I remember one meeting in the start-up robotics company for which I was working in the 1980’s. One of the members brought in her little girl. The wean picked up one of my foot-long springs and was happily playing with it. This was memorable to me as the first time I’d seen anyone but myself derive pleasure from my little compulsion. The mother told her that she should put “that man’s” paper down. I assured them that I was happy to let her have that one.

Three decades later, when these tractor feed strips are rare, I find myself folding napkin wrappers into these springs, and now admitting my bad habit. I secretly hope that some server or bus-person notices the odd nature of this minimalist origami as art, rather than just another piece of trash. But I am not holding my breath.

Fuzzy mice

I recall an article in Byte magazine (I think) by Jerry Pournelle (perhaps) back in the mid 1980’s about his adventure when his son lost the IBM mouse ball at the mall. Back then, there was no internet, few electronics stores, and even Computer Shopper was a thin monthly magazine with few aftermarket parts. So he finally got a replacement mouse from IBM, because no one could be found to provide a simple rubber ball of just the right size and weight.

Anyway, I thought of it when my current mouse, a 13 year old Logitech Mx510 optical mouse, lost the ability to wheel down. Back in the ball-mouse days, one had to clean the rollers regularly. But the optical mouse is nearly sealed, and has few moving parts. But Google agreed that the likely problem was dirt.  In over a decade, enough dust (crumbs, skin) did filter in through the wheel-side slots to block the sensor.

So here is today’s Object at Hand, the fuzzy internal workings of the scroll wheel.


Light passes through the spokes (when clean) and tells the processor which way and how far it turns. There are several loose parts in this assembly, and it took me a little while to get them back in the right order after I pulled the tiny carpets of fuzz from many tight internal surfaces.

But back together it went.


And back to work.


United Past

The Object at Hand for today caught my imagination at a moving sale, as a perfect hook to write about a few things. I present for for your amusement (or at least my own), a common corporate giveaway item  from the 1960’s: A United Airlines pocket knife.

United Knife

United Knife UnfoldsNow in the post-911 world of confiscating suspicious nail clippers, examining everyone’s shoes, and forbidding shampoo bottles, it seems hilarious that airlines once armed its passengers in this way. The blade in this is just 1½ inches in length, and was considered safe enough for airlines to distribute to passengers during the frequent hijacking era of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

I dated the knife by the logo: United changed its letterhead regularly. This knife had to be produced between 1961 and 1974.

History of United Logos

History of United Logos

Possession of knives was so casual in 1970 (when I was nine) that two aunts each gave me pocket knives for Christmas, at my grandmother’s house in Berlin. We then flew to Tel Aviv to visit my other grandmother, where I lost one of my new knives in the sand at the beach. No one thought anything about those 3″ blades in my carry on bag during any of the seven air legs of that trip.

Aside: I remember lugging my carry on up those rolling stairways into a variety of planes on that trip: 727’s between Germany, Israel, and Greece, and JFK to StL; 707’s across the Atlantic; and the short steps up into a DC-3 from Eilat on the Red Sea back to Tel Aviv. There was a caged chicken in the overhead rack next to the barely caged fan on the DC-3 flight. We’d taken the bus down, to tour the sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a few other sites for separating tourists from dollars.

In that more innocent era, there were no metal detectors or enclosed jet ways, and family greeted us right at the plane in Israel, and at the gates in Berlin. In New York I recall a cheerful porter racing us through JFK from international to a United gate to barely catch our flight, because the scheduled 3 hour layover became 15 minutes due to traffic control issues in those days before weather satellites, computer flight tracking, and automated approach beacons.

All these glancing observations evoked by spotting this little knife in a pile of cast off minutia at a moving sale.

Sash Above, Pole Below

When I was in third grade, in the 1960’s, I noticed that my teacher would open and close windows in peculiar ways during the warm part of the year. The early 20th century building had nice high ceilings with windows that went from the radiators up to nearly the top. Every afternoon, she would open the normal bottom sash about a foot, and then used a special pole to pull down the top sash by a foot. In the mornings, she would close them to keep the cool air in.

A few years later I got a vintage high school text book at a yard sale in which they suggest that the best way to cool off a room at night was to open the top and bottom sashes to let the cool air in below and flush the warm air out above. That made sense. But most people are not even aware that top sashes can move. Before that school year, I was one of them!

When I moved into an 1890’s home with 10 foot plus ceilings, I decided to vent the bathroom by opening the upper sash for much of the year. For many years, I would reach up over the top of the closed lower sash and push on the lower part of the upper sash vigorously with my crooked fingertips to open it a crack. Closing was much easier, using a broom stick or any convenient 3′ or longer rigid object.

But as opening was not a trivial task, the window often stayed open a few inches from warm-enough in the spring till getting-too-cool in the fall, with occasional shuts for really hot days. Not the most energy efficient air management.

Sash lifter hardwareFinally, I decided enough was enough, and went online shopping for a proper vintage sash lifter; today’s Object at Hand. A vintage cast iron pole tip was not hard to find, and the metal inserts to allow me to pull the upper sash from the top is still in production! So armed with these parts, I needed only to buy a pole. Fortunately, a 1″ diameter hardwood dowel at four feet length was conveniently available at a big box hardware chain store.

Sash Pole StainingSo I rounded one end of the dowel with a file and sandpaper, and tapered the other end with similar technique. Then sanding, staining, and varnishing took a couple of days of mostly waiting.

Then I drilled a hole in the old sash for the insert, mounted the puller on the pole. Now either I or my petite spouse can easily take the pole from where it hangs at the side of the window and pull open or push closed the sash at whim.

So here is how it looks in use on our 119 year old window. On the left, hanging on the old roller shade holder. On the right, in use, with a detail of how it fits in the socket.



Doughnuts to Burn

I was lighting up my grill the other day, and I (as a gestalt) flashed on three different posts that I could hang on that action, using three different objects. To start with, I have been using chimney style charcoal lighters since the 1980’s. Sure, my father lit his hibachi with lighter fluid.

This is he. I am the wean with the camera in hand.

Anyway, I used about one bottle of starter (like I learned from my pop) before I switched to the chimney starter.

But I recently wised up about putting a wad of newspaper in the bottom: The point of the chimney is to let the air flow through, but most people start by plugging the bottom with paper.

Now I wad the two sheets of tabloid-size newsprint into long rumpled cylinders, and then twist them into a torus.

“Bull!” you say?

No a torus, or doughnut shape, is the perfect form for the task. This lets the hot flames flow up the center, rather than out the side holes.

Here’s how it goes:

Step 1, make a ring out of old newspaper (Today’s Object at Hand):


Step 2: Stuff it in the bottom of the chimney:

Step 3: Fill the top with your favorite charcoal (more about this in a later post):

Ready to Light

Step 4: Ignition from below:


Step 4: Wait the usual 20 minutes at the charcoal warms up, hydrocarbon free.


So today’s Object at Hand is a bit of twisted trash used intelligently.

Letting Code Go

FolkFireCalendarI have written about letting go of old industrial code in the past. But today I have decided that it is time to discard a vestigial part of my first website, something where the code is still in use. Barely. Today’s Object at Hand is the old FolkFire calendar.

I started writing the FolkFire web site in early 1995, using my $25 copy of Netscape Navigator 2.0, and writing my code in Notepad for the proposed HTML 2.0 standard. I bought a book on HTML and taught myself as I coded. I had to manually install a TCPIP socket (“winsock”) on my DOS/Windows 3.11 machine in order to connect even to my local server. Sorry about the “Back when I was a kid…”

In 1996 I added an events calendar, written in Perl using another book to learn as I went. This was back before Google, before Yahoo, and before local newspapers, TV stations, etc. had sites with calendars of events. We consolidated events from all over the region, to make it easier for both people and groups to do their planning.

Over the next few years, this calendar evolved a bit. I put in hundreds of volunteer hours just for the calendar. By Y2K it was pretty much in its current format (click on the image to see it as it was, via the Wayback Machine Web Archive). It leveled off at about 1,200 lines of original code, because I am always careful to remove what is no longer needed. Sometimes adding a feature resulted in shorter code.

But since the millennium I have been trying to divest myself of this web site. There has been a Help Wanted banner on the FolkFire home page for 13 years!

Then I noticed that for the last several years, no one even submits events to our calendar any more. Long ago I lost the eager drive to chase after groups and beg them for their information so that we can give them free promotion. So it is time to put this piece of my history to bed. If a FolkFire calendar is to rise again, whoever does it can use the Google calendar engine.