Archive for the 'Historical' Category

In the Thick of it

Embossed Card

How many of you remember those old, carbon-paper credit card receipt machines? Revel in the solid “Ka-chunk chunk” sound as the cashier strained to run the slider back and forth, and the waste can full of booklets of carbon paper pulled from the right side of the sandwich of receipts. As a kid I was allowed to take some of those carbons home from stores, to play with fingerprints, and to use for stenciling. Back then, folks didn’t worry so much about identity theft.

But have you even seen one of those machines in the last decade?

Today’s Object at Hand is a new debit card, complete not only with a magnetic strip (tech from the 1970’s) but also a somewhat secure chip (based on the late 1990’s tech now considered obsolete in Europe). And, what is this? It still has the 1950’s legacy support of embossed information! Why, you may well ask, do I make a point of this?

I like a thin wallet. The embossing increases the thickness of each card by 50%, and the friction to drag it out of a wallet pocket by noticeably more than that. It wears out the pocket or adjacent cards faster, as well as frustrating the user when too many get packed in there. And it serves no (expletive) purpose. Well, little potential purpose.

Had I a flat card, and needed to purchase from some Luddite (who also does not take cash, or checks, and has neither the free stripe reader or the cheap chip reader available to anyone with a smart phone), they would be forced to hand write my name and card number on their multi-part receipt form. I’d happily do it for them.

Fortunately, I could walk in to my bank and get a flat version of the card this morning. All the same information at 66% of the thickness. Happy ending 🙂

Socket To Me

Or: All Your Base Are Belong to Edison

As I was putting up lights for the Solstice/Yule/Christmas season this year, I found that my porch light would not work right. I had unscrewed the bulb to screw in an outlet to power the porch-hung wreath, and could not make it work. I had replaced a (CFL) bulb a month earlier, and suspected that the fixture rather than the bulb was at fault. Now, I was sure of it. So I used an alternate source for the season.

P1060115But then we had a warm day in January, so I set up a ladder and took down the light. Yes, I first identified the right breaker (that took a few tries) and shut off the power.

The fixture seems to be from the 1940’s or 50’s.

IMG_0649I had put a dusk-to-dawn sensor on it in 1990. Birds had nested upon it, and insects apparently made themselves at home behind it.

So down it came, and I worked out how to disassemble it. The screws were rusty, but functional. It needed a good cleaning.

But as I took it apart, it became apparent that the problem was not the wobbly nature of the light socket, but rather that a tubular rivet in the interior of the socket had fatigued away, failed. This was the critical problem. Here you can see the two rivet positions for the Edison base shell, one without a rivet. The missing side is the one to which the neutral power line connects. So the light worked if I pushed it in to touch the rivet, and only then.


So what to do? I hate to replace something that can be fixed. Fortunately, I am a bit of a hoarder. I had saved the light fixtures from a burned out, water damaged ceiling fan a decade ago. I found this remnant and pulled out its socket. See what the rivets are supposed to look like:


The iffy news is that the wires on the “new” 1980’s socket are a bit corroded. But my experience as a tinker and my degree in electrical engineering led me to think this was not a real issue. With CFL’s and LED’s it will never be carrying as much power as it was designed to.

The good news is that the holes, indents, and threads of the 1980’s socket matched the mid-century light fixture. A perfect fit.


So the true Object at Hand is the late 1800’s designed electrical screw-socket to mount light bulbs (generically known as an Edison Base) that are still made from ceramic and brass.

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.

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.

Gating My Neighbor

The title is a pun, for those who know English Country Dancing of the kinds we do in the three linked venues in this sentence. It is a move in which one person pulls another one gently around them by the hand, much like a swinging gate.

Old GateAnyway, I was finally motivated to fix an alley gate in the rear of the property next to the one in which I reside. Back when the tech bubble burst, I built a new gate for a neighbor when I was considering non-computer remunerable activities (“jobs”). But other less sweaty forms of enterprise soon came my way. So it has been a dozen years since I have built a gate from scratch.

This old gate had twice required repair already this very year. But the quarter century old treated and mistreated lumber was no longer holding screws reliably. Also, the gate had design flaws from the beginning: It was designed and built by the architect from whom I bought the building in 1986. As I have seen in many cases, architects are generally design artists, not students of engineering or livability.

So I decided to engineer a new gate. I used modern treated wood, allowed it to age and dry for a while in the garage. Then gave each piece a good soaking with oil based penetrating redwood stain (a mix of red and yellow pigments, both of which retard biological growth (ie: algae, lichen, other rots).

Gate skeletonFirst, I had to reinforce the hinge side of the fence with a new upper stringer and a new fence board to support the hinges. Then I measured several times and cut only once per piece, working in the relatively cool shade of the garage this July 4th holiday weekend. I lined up the stringer boards parallel across saw horses. Then measured some more and put in the end fence boards cantilevered out to cover the jamb just the right amount. More careful measuring, and cut the diagonal tension web board to support the gate and prevent it from sagging over the next couple of decades.

This web board is actually the missing board from the first picture. It was in good enough shape to be reused. Then I fit in the other fence boards by eye, and screwed everything up. Intentional cross-the-pond implied pun.

New GateThat is, I attached all the parts with deck screws. Unfortunately, my screws of different lengths had different head types. Back around Y2K, square drive heads replaced the old Phillips heads. Now, those have been supplanted by Torx star drive heads. So I had to change my driver bit way too often, as I refuse to discard perfectly good weatherized screws just because they have been on my shelf for a decade.

Anyway, the gate is now finished. My neighbors no longer have to wrestle with the gate to take out their recycling or trash. Sure, I used salvaged hinges probably from the early 1900’s, and the latch is one I bought at Central Hardware in the 1980’s. But those old parts can be expected to last out the life of this gate, and probably the next.

So the Object At Hand here is the gate I built. Or the idea of a gate. Or even the use of the English Country Dance term to sucker unlikely people into reading this post.

Here is a video that I put together of an English Country Dance performance for one of the three groups linked above. Yes, I appear briefly in it.

Object of Improbable Geometric Ancestry

One item we regularly enjoy at our favorite buffet in the City of Saint Louis is the dessert Crème brûlée. Until recently, it was served in tiny ceramic bowls. They were not exactly regulation ramekins, but clearly more durable and stackable. But the last time we visited the River City Casino Great Food Exposition, the still-credible delectable was served in disposable (ideally recyclable) aluminum cups.

Crème brûlée
After I finished the contents, I stared into the empty cup and a memory surfaced from decades ago: Back in my college daze, I would meet a friend in one of the student lounges a couple of times a week. Back then smoking was still common, so they had disposable aluminum ash trays on every table. When I got a clean one, I exercised my nervous fingers by reproducing a shape that I’d learned to make in silversmithing classes.

I’d studied directly under Heikki Seppa and under some of his students. One of his masters level exercises was to make what he called an “HPX” or Hyperbolic Paraboloid Extension. One that the master himself made is in the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, shown to the right. It is an object of pure anti-clastic curves, where perpendicular lines on the surface curve away from each other, like a saddle or the McDonnell Planetarium. The opposite kind of surface is called synclastic, like a ball or bowl.

Working with a disc of silver or copper, one hammers and folds it to gradually compress the metal in the center in the hardest possible direction, so that the center thickens and the edges curve over. You end up with a fairly unusual shape of no practical utility at all, but fun to fiddle with.

So I wiped off most of the remaining custard and began to play, encouraging edges around and surfaces to collapse. I was surprised how quickly I got the shape to form, given the 30 years since my last attempt. Anyway, this is how I made today’s Object at Hand, seen below. Feel free to try it yourself, the next time you find yourself with a foil dish, bowl, or cup.
HPX 2013

I incorporated a copper HPX as part of a sculpture that won First Prize in a Science Fiction convention art show way back when. My title is probably what they truly were awarding, “Creature of Improbable Genetic Ancestry Examining Object of Improbable Geometric Ancestry.” Thus the title of this post.

Sometimes “Some Assembly Required” is Scary

My 2005 Systemax Pentium-D desktop is getting old. I had quadrupled the original RAM (to the max) and upgraded the hard drive a few times (to ½TB = 500,000 MB). But I’ve had people tell me that the hamsters running in the squirrel cages of my CPU were getting tired. I’ve watched how-to videos where the presenter apologized for having a too slow a machine, with twice the cores, three times the RAM, faster chips, and other specs way beyond mine as I was trying to run the same programs. It was seeming to be time for me to buy a new machine.

So I did some shopping. The local MicroCenter had a pretty good deal on a Core i5-2300 with 6GB and 1TB. But I was sure I’d see a slightly better deal at TigerDirect. So I did some shopping there. But I hesitated to buy that day. The very next morning, I received an email from Tiger offering a machine with comparable specs for $120 less! The gods had spoken: It was time.

Why was it cheaper? It is a gaming machine. That is, the power of an executive desktop, but with extra twiddling lights and configured to be for media consumers rather than content creators. But I knew that I’d have approximately equal battles setting up either an executive or a gamer machine. Because this is after the back-to-school sales and before the holiday spike, I got a bargain. My previous machine was over a kilobuck. Actually, every machine from the $2,500 64k no-hard-drive Apple ][ forward was over a grand. Well, my first laptop, the 1983 TRS-80 Model 100 was only down to $400 when I bought it in 1986. But it wasn’t a serious computer.

So I placed the order on Friday and this box, this Object at Hand, arrived on Monday.

There it sat. And I began to feel a touch of dread, as this is a version of “Some Assembly Required” that can intimidate me. I had said earlier that “Some Assembly Required” Doesn’t Scare Me in regard to a mere mechanical tandem bicycle. But this innocent box, packaged ready so that a first-time user could pretty much be up and running in minutes, poses a herculean task for an old-timer like me.

It is not because I am old, although I do have certain ways that I like to do things. The problem is that a fully loaded new computer means

  1. All new supplied programs are subtly different from their familiar predecessors, and
  2. It won’t be loaded with any programs that do most of what I need to do, and
  3. It will have much installed that needs to be purged. Helpful things that circumvent what I try to do. Friendly things that insist on telling me how to do things I’ve been doing for decades. Happy things trying to sell me on even more products for which I know better and cheaper alternatives.

So I unpack it, plug in wires for everything necessary, turn it on, and then a few days of “fun” begins.

Note: Each task is an installation and/or configuration task. The links should all open in a new tab/window.

taskFirst it wants me to answer some questions. No problem. I get it up and running, and am online in under a half hour, ready to do anything I want in the cloud.

taskThen it offers to “simply” copy my preferences and data from my old machine. In the many upgrades I’ve survived since the mid 1980’s, I have sometimes chosen to let it do this, and other times did it the bad, old way. I’m not sure which is less painful. But I gave it a chance, installed the copier, and let it run. It took 9 hours at 100MB/s to do the copying. Mostly video files and pictures.

taskAfter that was done, I began by installing FireFox 6.0. I do need to test my web pages in Chrome as well as IE and FireFox. The computer came with IE and Chrome installed, and I would have installed them had they not come on this computer. But IMHO 😈 FireFox is better for development because of its configurability and libraries of Add-Ons (or Apps in smartphone-speak).

tasktasktasktaskThen FireFox needed a few necessary-to-me add ons like FireFTP (for uploading files), HtmlValidator (to make sure my web pages meet standards), Make Link (to copy encoded hypertext links for posting in blog comments), and NoScript (to block unwanted ads, twiddles, and hacks).

tasktasktaskThen Flash, Acrobat, and Quicktime had to be downloaded and installed so that all web pages would work. I have a license for QuickTime Pro, and created my first few simple videos with it. So I had to install and up-register it.

taskI tried to find new drivers for my fancy 2003 ergonomic Logitech 8 button optical mouse. But Windows 7 is not supported! The main function that I want is remapping the wheel button to double-click. This saves a lot of frustration, and who ever uses the default wheel-lock function? So I spent some time searching and found XButtonMouse, a simple to use 64/32 bit mouse driver modifier. Now I have the middle-double-click that I’ve been using since Windows 3.11.

taskI cannot live without Notepad++, a free and universal text and programming editor. This is what I use to create my web pages since SideKick, Notepad, and KEdit.

taskOne very important thing was to “differently able” the capslock key. I wrote about this in my post Die, Caps Lock, Die! a couple of years ago, and so was able to easily find the script to kill capslock and let the Scroll Lock key be useful for that rarely needed and often mis-tapped function. If anyone has ever had a use for Scroll Lock, please describe it in a comment.

tasktaskConnecting and installing my laser and ink jet printers went pretty well. I was surprised that it went as easily as the instructions would have me believe. That hardly ever happens! But this is the first computer I have owned that does not have a Centronics parallel printer port. USB2 is almost as fast, and uses less space.

taskThen I had to install and upgrade Quicken to continue keeping track of where it all goes.

taskAnd I need The Gimp (an open source PhotoShop). This time I am planning to let ThumbsPlus fall by the wayside

taskAnd then we get to OpenOffice, because if I tried to edit a document of pretty much any type, this system wanted me to buy Microsoft Office. I detest The Ribbon, and don’t plan to use Office. Thanks to SourceForge for this ever more capable and permanently free and perpetually updated suite.

taskI did download and install Microsoft Live Mail, as the heir apparent to Outlook Express that I’d used since the late 1990’s. And spent considerable time trying to get it to do some things, and researching it. But in my household this won’t work, mainly because it does not allow multiple mail log-ins under the same Windows User. There is another paragraph later about the multiple task of importing two separate sets of email across three programs and two computers.

taskFinally, it was time to download my Video Editor, the purchase of which actually convinced me to buy this new machine. I’d spent some time fighting with a few free editors, and I already had a library of videos composed on MoviePlus 5.0 and then X3. So now I upgraded to MoviePlus X5. Another several hour download. This will probably get installed last.

tasktasktaskMeanwhile, I managed to get some old games copied over. It had to be done in stages, but now the classics Doom2/ZDoom (with hundreds of levels downloaded over the years), Pinball, and the original Snood are on our new Win7 machine. Doom2 and Snood I’d bought long ago, and Pinball came with WinXP and Win98 and Win95), for which I retain a slightly dingy license by keeping original disks.

Getting late on the second night since the machine arrived.

taskSo the third day was mostly spent on getting email moved over. Why such a big deal? Two work-from-home professionals with multiple businesses and interests who need separate email log-ins, but like to share a desktop. Altogether, thousands of old emails that might still be relevant.  I had done Windows Live Mail before, and found it wanting. So I installed and researched Mozilla Thunderbird. But it took a bit more research to figure out how to cleanly set Thunderbird up in a manner functionally like how we’d been using Outlook Express since the 1990’s. My foray into the Microsoft offering turned out to not be of any use, except to educate me on how competing products extract information from the legacy apps.

tasktaskSo I moved the monitor cord back to the old machine, and reconfigured Outlook Express to default to the email folders and accounts of my spouse, to collect her data. Then I installed Mozilla Thunderbird on the old machine and imported the many folders of email and addresses and so forth. The I had to spent some time rearranging stuff and testing. One problem was that many emails were redundantly downloading. Aarghhh! Not a surprise, but certainly a nuisance. But, wait! ThunderBird is open source! When there is a problem, someone fixes it. I looked, and there was an add-on to remove duplicate messages from a folder, with all sorts of checks and safeguards. Yay!

tasktaskNow to get the old data for the new program from the old to the new machine. Again, the free software community to the rescue. MozBackup is not by Mozilla, but another freeware provider. But it allows each person’s email log in identity (called a Profile in Thunderbird) to be separately exported and/or imported. So I installed it and used it on the old machine. Moved the cables, and then installed Thunderbird and MozBackup on the new machine, and only had a half hour of tweaking to get the new machine to do what the old one did, as far as spouse data goes. Then I imported my own 7 email accounts and 15 folders into my own login. It would be so much simpler, if only I didn’t know from experience that access to orders, or ideas, or causes, etc from several years ago is very useful.

taskThen I realized that I had to install more stuff to do web site development on this machine. I put in Active Perl so that I can develop and test cgi pages. I will also have to rewrite certain VB utilities I’ve been using in Perl. I could use Java, but I don’t have the time right now to teach it to myself. Perl will require a certain amount of configuration before I install a web server to use it.

taskAnd I had to find and install MoveIt Freely, because the Windows FTP command line utility does not handle secure nor the passive mode, required by Google for MrTitanium to upload his items. Plus there was the minor chore of rewriting my script files to use this command for the aid of myself and my clients.

taskAfter a little searching, I found that Win7 Home Premium comes with a web server. But IIS7 comes neither installed nor exactly easy to find. But a little Google led me to the right corner of the advanced settings, and I should be able to test my websites locally. Should. It turns out that the sites I inherited from earlier developers use what is now considered a denigrated scripting system, Classic ASP. It took some tweaking to get the new server to run the older style pages. Then a series of unfortunate events, each requiring some tweaking before I could get my normal working environment working.

Now it is the third sunset since I got the box.

taskSo on day 4, after some more adjustments to email filters and such, I finally install MoviePlus X5. It installed just fine, and looks as good as earlier version. But it runs so much more smoothly on this new box.

However, the reason I got on this ride is because the earlier MoviePlus version couldn’t update an earlier video I’d developed on X3 because of a new conflict with QuickTime, the format of raw video coming off of some of my cameras. The new version does run QuickTime again. However, not in old movie edit files. I would have to re-edit in every piece of QuickTime video, when I just wanted to fix one letter in one caption.

Yes, all this started with a typo!

See if you can spot it: