Archive for the 'Historical' Category

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:


I enjoy funny words, like “spinthariscope.” It sounds like it should be a fancy and complex Steam Punk gizmo for watching rapidly rotating things, like a centrifuge or gyroscope. But Crookes coined the word as an Anglicization of the Greek-rooted word Scintillate for his invention to view nuclear decays. It provided one of the first direct proofs that Curie radiations were discrete, quantized events and not a continuous field.

Spintahriscope in place over the isotope holder in a smoke detector

After writing my post “Not All Natural” about the nuclear waste found in my house, I decided to buy a spinthariscope and see some nuclear radiation as directly as possible. This cheap one just looks like a strip of paper with a round window of simple translucent film. But it works like a charm.

To actually see the radiation from my smoke detector, I had to dark-adapt for a full half hour in my darkest room. Then I could see the glow of alpha particles striking the scope. With a magnifier, one can see each individual particle die. The source produces about 17,000 particles a second spread over 2π steradians, so the dark circle seen at the lower right of the viewer area was alive with about 2,000 green speckles a second.

But, wait, you may well say. Everyone knows  😉 that it takes a minimum of seven photons to trigger a response in the most sensitive rods in a human retina. How can the single quantum event, an alpha particle collision,  produce more than a single photon?

To start with, an alpha particle is a fully ionized helium nucleus, and therefore will collect two electrons from the first atoms it can approach. That’s a minimum of two photons, as any change in electron state releases (or absorbs) a photon. But then the atoms from which it stole the electrons will also be ionized, and claim electrons from others. This can go on for a while (nanoseconds) till some free electrons are found to fill the gap. But this is still only a small number of photons. Additionally, the alpha particle can only grab those electrons once it is moving at less than the speed of light.

Wait. How can an alpha particle go faster than the speed of light? Well, it cannot in free space. But the speed of light in a material medium is lower than the speed of light in a vacuum. Remember your lessons in refraction, of how lenses work. Those alpha particles leave their nuclei of origin at quite a clip, faster than the speed limit in any solid. So when alphas start passing other atoms at this illegal speed, they exert a force to slow them down. Any quantum force implies a quantum of energy, = photons. This is Cherenkov radiation, the light given off when particles go faster than the speed of light in a medium. This is what causes that eerie blue glow one sees near the core of nuclear reactors.

So the spinthariscope works by having a coating of a special crystal, like silver-activated zinc-sulfide, that is transparent to visible light, converts high energy photons (gamma through ultra-violet) down to visible light, and provides a medium of low light speed (high refractive index) to maximize the Cherenkov glow. So each alpha particle creates a shower of thousands of photons, enough to see as a tiny flash of color in a very dark room.

It is mesmerizing to watch this surreal, silent circle of ever changing speckles and to understand this miracle of helium being born. I’m sorry that I don’t have equipment to try to show you a video of the glow on today’s Object at Hand. But even if I did, it would be sort of like showing pictures of the Grand Canyon. Until you’ve seen it live, you can’t get the feel of it.

A Penny Full of Thoughts

Much like most people, I have a jar of pennies. A few years ago, I began separating my pennies and segregating them into two separate containers. One contains traditional pennies made of copper, and the other gets the new ones that are copper plated zinc. After hundreds of years of copper cents (ignoring the 1943 steel penny) they changed them in 1982 because pennies were worth more than a penny as scrap. Copper is currently around $4/lb, and zinc is around a buck. At $4/lb, a copper penny contains 2.8¢ of copper.

So I put on my reading glasses, and used a magnifying glass, to separate pre-1982 from post-1982 pennies. But what about 1982? The year was mixed. I collected the 1982’s in a separate pill bottle until it was full.

This evening I pulled out my great uncle’s jewelry balance (Today’s Object) and began comparing pairs of pennies. You see, copper weighs 8.9 times as much as water, and zinc only 7.1, a difference of 25%. Once I found a mismatched pair, I could compare the lighter one against each of the rest, and quickly separated the 1982’s into solid and copper plated. Most of the ones I had were solid copper.

Those solid ones I plan to keep around, and the plated ones get disposed of. It’s not because the older ones will get much more valuable any time soon. It’ll be generations before the supply of stashed copper pennies dwindles, even if they do manage to roll out the planned steel pennies or do away with them altogether. But they are a snapshot of my early life, and can always be turned into enough useful cash to buy a small meal.

There are several ways that I dispose of the zinc ones. The dominant and common way to to count and roll them and take them to the bank.

The second way is somewhat artistic. A few years ago I happened to have access to the freshly poured concrete alley behind my house:

Alley Pavement use of pennies

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The third is more fun and slightly dangerous. But this is the subject of my next post.

Half a Century

The object at hand is a memento of my first breath, 600 months ago. Shown here are a few distinctive items from a pile my mother had collected and stashed away, and I discovered after her death.

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I was born on the day of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Back then there were no weather satellites, no weather radar, no mobile phones, nor email. “Cable” meant sending a telegram, a less expensive and more reliable alternative than a long distance phone call. A letter cost 4¢ by ground, and air mail was extra. Here are congratulations from Germany, Israel and New York. And I have no idea if this birth certificate would be official enough to satisfy doubters.

The reverse of the Pet Milk stork card is revealing of the era when men were birthday bystanders:

“Congratulations, Dad!
To see your baby, please present this souvenir card at the nursery window.
Hold card against window so nursery nurse can see the name.
Please return card to mother’s bedside.”

But my purpose in this post is to observe some things of interest in the past half century.

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I was too young to notice when the first man went into space, but I stayed up late to watch the live broadcast of Armstrong stepping down from the Lunar Module. Billionaires can now buy a ride into space, but few bother. America has apparently passed the baton to Europe, Japan, and China as the rulers of space.

I remember fallout drills, and actually saw “Duck and Cover” in school. Everyone worried about radiation on a daily basis, but hadn’t heard of cholesterol. Guess which one kills 1,000 times as many people as the other?

One of my teachers was so used to the original Pledge of Allegiance that she would occasionally leave out the “Under God” that had recently been inserted in the middle of “One Nation Indivisible” when we did the daily ritual. She also showed us the proper way to stand from when she was in school. See The Changing Recipe of Pleasure Lesion Stew for a surprising picture.

In the last five decades organ transplants went from science fiction, to an abomination against God that should be outlawed, to a rare and expensive major surgery, to a fairly common procedure that anyone might expect. Drivers licenses (at least in my state) have a donor form. Mine is signed. Is yours?

As I grew up, vacuum tubes gave way to transistors and then integrated circuits. Several technological inventions in the last half century have changed society. I mean, really altered the ways in which people interact.

  • The Pill made it possible for women to have a career and social life without either a husband or celibacy, so now women are almost half of the workforce. It also changed the point of dating. Girls no longer consider finding a husband their only goal, and mostly not their primary one.
  • The rapidly evolving WWWeb allows people to  interact in many new ways for both business and social purposes. One minor sign: Video phones and teleconferencing are no longer solely toys of millionaires and super-geeks. It is now fairly common for people to work from home.
  • Cell phones mean that no one has to make social plans in advance, nor wait by a phone. The world is un-tethered! And you can’t get away from the office!
  • Between the web and cell phones, privacy is dying. This is inevitable. As new generations grow up with ubiquitous communication, everything they think and do is broadcast and stored. Much like after the Kinsey Reports, as everyone begins to notice how many others share their own private thoughts and behaviors, guilt will recede.
  • The web has also killed the publishing and copyright models of the 16th through 20th centuries, in much the same way that Gutenberg changed the previous setup. Music, text, and video is now cheaper to share than gum. There is still a crying need for editors and librarians, to polish and organize the flood of new and traditional media. This change is ongoing, and we still don’t know how it will settle out. But historians will mark its genesis in my lifetime.
  • Containerization (that was just taking hold in my childhood) now makes goods from the far side of the world price competitive with local products. “Imported” now rarely means rare or posh. And the improved communications infrastructure allows many jobs to be moved around the world to find cheaper labor. It is truly becoming a unified world economy.

Some things have not changed much during my life.

  • Personally owned motor cars are still the major influence in the planning of transportation and towns. Pubic transit infrastructure in most cities has declined as a result. But it shows signs of returning in the next half century as the cost of extracting fuel rises.
  • The price of a gallon of gas is still about half the cost of a movie ticket and about the same as a fast food meal. No change over the ten presidential administrations that I’ve experienced.
  • Men still wear pants, although now women also do, without undue notice.
  • People still mostly work 40 hour weeks, although now it takes two working adults to support most households.
  • People used to get their news from the newspaper with whose editorial slant they least disagreed. Now they get their news from the video and web columnists with whom they almost perfectly agree. Maybe this belongs in the “changed” section. Human nature hasn’t changed, but the media are much better positioned to pander to it.

So a half century gives me some personal perspective from which to view history and humanity. Or at least the illusion that I have it.

Not All Natural

When I see a package labeled “All Natural”, I muse about the alternative. What, exactly, is not natural? Not many things in everyday experience cannot be found in nature. For example, plastics are artificially polymerized distillations from found materials. Even that artificial polymerization is just a concentrated effort to do what happens haphazardly in nature.

The same holds true for “artificial” ingredients. Any of them may be found in nature. The artifice comes from concentrating and using them. So what would qualify, to my mind, as unnatural? After all, artifice (the root of artificial) is broadly a work of art, a craft of man. But all the root ingredients he uses are natural, found in nature. Then they are broken down or built up in a manner that is completely consistent with nature.

I could argue that the only thing that would be unnatural is something supernatural. But no supernatural thing has ever been reliably observed. If a supernatural thing could be observed reliably, and its behavior documented, it would become part of the definition of nature, the province of science. But this is not my point.

I believe that I have found an artificial ingredient in my Victorian house. That is, a basic substance that did not exist in any measurable amount on this planet by the time we started looking. Or when God created it, if you follow Young Earth theology. Moreover, I’d bet that my readers have this unnatural thing in their houses, as well.

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I am referring to a chemical element that was not found in nature. The basic elements (beyond hydrogen and helium) were created in stars and supernovae. Basically, the hot quark soup was stirred roughly, and splashed out into a nebula to freeze into the nuclei of elemental atoms. As the quarks congealed, they formed a smear of normally distributed isotopes. Most of those were unstable, and decayed through a series of stages until they arrived at something stable. And most of those decay chains were pretty fast, on the order of milliseconds to a few years.

What we find on our planet (defined as “natural”) is a distribution of isotopes of elements that are either stable, or have very long half-lives. By comparing the relative amounts of each isotope, one can estimate that the nova that produced the planetary nebula from which our solar system formed happened about 6 billion years ago. There are no “natural” elements heavier than Uranium. U-238 (to use the heaviest natural isotope for specific example) has a half life of over five billion years. Most of the “natural” shorter-lived elements (like radon) are here only because they are daughter products of uranium (or protactinium) decay. And some short-lived isotopes, like Carbon-14, are continually produced by cosmic ray impacts.

The object at hand is a smoke detector, wherein lies a modern miracle. The way an ionizing smoke detector works is to have a little open air space that is made conductive by a small radioactive source. A tiny electric current runs through this air space, unless the conductivity of this ionized air is reduced by smoke. Then the alarm goes off. It can detect smoke almost as sensitively as a human nose: A few parts per million.

Therefore when you open a smoke detector, you can see a radiation warning. It is intentionally hard to read, to avoid panicking folks who are afraid of radiation.

There are many radioactive isotopes that could be used, some of them even “natural.” But some are bad because they are chemically toxic. Some are bad because they decay into something dangerous. And some are prohibitively expensive to isolate. So what did they choose?

Americium. This is part of the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, and also an annoying daughter product that has to be periodically removed from plutonium bomb pits. How radioactive is it? The warning above tells you, if you know how to read it. 1.0 μCi (micro Curies) or 37 kBq (kilo Becquerels) is the answer.

Huh? The latter value is more intuitive. Henri Becquerel shared the Nobel prize with Marie Curie. His unit is the number of decays per second. That is, this smoke detector source shoots off 37,000  alpha particles (helium nuclei) every second. It is an absolute amount, assuming a fresh source, and the correct weight of material.

What I wondered was, “How much material?” This is where the Curie units are more useful. I looked up the Specific Activity of Americium 241, and it is 3.2 Curies per gram.The container says we have one micro-Curie of the stuff, so that gives us 0.31 micrograms. A very small speck. (btw: 1 Ci = 3.7 x 1010 Bq).

If you break the seal, remove the solder, and clip the safeties (don’t try this at home) you can look at the isotope itself. It doesn’t look like much. My sample is over 20 years old and apparently has been splashed with dirty water, possibly during a house fire in 1988. Here is a cool picture of a fresher bit.

So how dangerous is this un-natural bit of nuclear waste in your home? Americium is not chemically toxic, and most of its compounds are relatively insoluble. However, that 37 kBq means it can break 37,000 of your molecules for every second it is in you. So don’t touch it. Because it is an alpha source, it is completely exposed; any protective covering would stop the alpha particles from reaching the air it needs to ionize. Air itself stops alpha particles within a few inches. But each decay also produces a gamma photon. At 37kBq, this gamma source is pretty dark. By comparison, a 100 watt light bulb sends out about 1020 times as many photons per second.

How long will it last? The half life (how long it takes for half of it to decay) is about 433 years. It decays into another alpha source, Neptunium-237 with a half life of two million years (still chemically harmless and 4,619 times less radioactive). So after 20 years, there is still 98% of the original activity in this sample. This is why they prefer Americium-241 to many other isotopes for home safety use. The whole Neptunium series decay chain is listed here, for those who want to know its future.

Banking on My Heritage

This object today was my mother’s coin bank. This is a promotional product from her father’s place of business. His branch of the then-nationalized bank, Die Sparkasse der Stadt Berlin, was in a trendy new west county suburb of Berlin as the Third Reich rose from the ashes of a defeated and crippled nation.

Photographically Unwrapped, Click to Enlarge

My grandfather Otto was not really a banker; he was a calculator. He sat at one desk in a large room full of desks and calculated columns of numbers, like interest payments and account balances. He’d run his finger down a column and write the sum. Yes, I am descended from math geeks on both sides.

What really impressed my mother as a little girl (when she went with him to work) was the vertical people conveyor they used as a worker’s elevator in the 1930’s. It was a continually running vertical belt of person-sized platforms in a shaft that you step quickly onto and off of as it reaches or clears your floor. I’d put a picture of one here if I could find one.

I never met my grandfather. His asthma, quick wits, and connections kept him away from the front during the war. He become a bicycle courier when the banks (and all non-essential business in town) closed, as the war drew to its by-then inescapable conclusion. But Allied heavy artillery disassembled him and his bike near the center of town within a week of V.E. day. At least he went quickly while doing something useful. My mother found out months later, when the Soviets allowed her to return to what was left of her hometown.

Mom managed to keep this bank as a memento. The Allied soldiers who occupied her home had left it behind, along with the other things that were not valuable or particularly portable. She carefully packed it from place to place in postwar Germany for a decade, and then brought it to the U.S. where it survived a few more moves before she settled down. She gave it to me when I was almost old enough to understand that it was precious to her. I’d guess about half of the dents and scratches were my doing, from when I was small.

So today’s Object At Hand is a souvenir from one of my ancestors.

Running Out of Light

This morning I had an idea. But then I looked up at that cartoon light bulb hovering over my head, and decided to write about that object, instead.

This marvelous still-working antique makes for a better image than the collection of dead light bulbs that were actually my inspiration. You see, the world is running out of tungsten. So I am starting to salvage the filaments from my dead light bulbs.

May I assume that you don’t think about tungsten very often? This metal is rarer and harder to purify than gold. But it sells for only a few dozen dollars a pound. Every electrical light bulb, whether incandescent, fluorescent, or arc, contains tungsten. So do x-ray tubes, cat-scanners, and (believe it or not) commercial airplane wings.

What’s so special about it? It has a high melting point. It is the only element that would be a liquid on the surface of the sun. This is why it is so useful in light bulbs. It is also one of the heaviest elements: As heavy as gold, or eleven times as heavy as magnesium. This density is why it is in the wings of large airplanes, as dynamic turbulence compensators. You can see many examples and learn lots of cool stuff about tungsten here at I get lost in that site, either geeking out or admiring the photography and stories.

Anyway, this rare and useful material  is getting hard to find in the Earth’s crust. And every day, tons of it go to the landfill, mostly in burned-out lightbulbs. All the original tungsten is still in that sealed ampule, mostly as a strand of wire with a small gap. And we throw this rare stuff away.

Although we are generations away from needing to mine the landfills for valuable materials such as this, I have decided to start collecting tungsten from my dead lamps. At the rate they burn out, I may have a pound by the end of my life. But it feels vaguely satisfying to know that it will be easy to recycle, once they (we) realize its value.

A Nod to a Knob

I bought a duplex in 1986. When I first moved in I removed the front door latch and doorknob and replaced it with a modern, stronger latch assembly. Tenants and I have lived comfortably with this arrangement for decades, and inspectors never mentioned it. But I live in an 1890’s historic conservation district, so I have to pay for an inspection every time a tenant moves.

This year we had a new inspector who took one look at the front door, and told me that it must have a doorknob. I suspect that this was only necessary to prove the need for inspections, because all the actual structural and safety issues exceed code. So it annoyed me that I had to “fix” something that had neither ever been a problem, nor changed.

It is an easily remedied issue. I dug into my box of salvaged door parts, and pulled out a selection to take over there and hoped to find a fitting solution.

It took me only a quarter hour to mix and match knobs, shaft, and cover plate on the old door from this collection. It is handy to have handyman skills. But the lesson of this object at hand is that sometimes, admittedly not often, piles of old parts come in handy.

Discarding an Era

About 3 years ago, I pondered disposing of a certain box of papers that I’ve been keeping for decades.  Reluctant Admission of Obsolescence is the post I’d written.

Today, I finally decided to go through it one more time, and get rid of it. Or most of it. Today’s Object At Hand is the relatively thin pile that I decided to keep a while longer. This is merely a representative sample from a full file box.

What we have here is a short stack of folders containing some documentation and notes, some disks of programs and data, and a 30′ roll of a program listing. All the equipment involved is completely obsolete, the specific computer languages are no longer used, and the companies for which most of these projects were done no longer exist.

So, why do I keep these mementos?

Perhaps because I am officially a codger. “I remember when” we used assembly language. Higher level languages (Fortran, Pascal, HP-Basic) properly used line numbers and GOTO’s. The worst was having to program in relay logic for conveyor controls. Yes, diagrams of electro-mechanical circuits as a programming language. I decided to write a program to write the relay logic for me, from a simple set of rules. Had I patented and published that tool, I could’a been well off back then. But I was always writing tools to make my jobs easier.

“I remember when” floppy disks were actually floppy and could store between 140 KB and 360KB, depending on formatting and how new the drive was. Microsoft was a new contender in the systems and languages market for small computers. This code ran on a Hewlett-Packard massive 728 KB RAM 9816 computer using a Motorola processor that ran rings around Intels offerings. I also wrote code for several proprietary industrial and lab boxes that few would have heard of, even back then.

Printouts were either slow, noisy 8-pin dot-matrix, or (as shown here) a fancy, modern thermal printer. Thermal was fast (for the time) and quiet. But it fades, like memory. And the cheaper paper came in rolls instead of fan-fold.

It was an exciting time to be a geek. I eagerly read Byte magazine, and Computer Shopper. The latter was only a hundred pages when I started, and had actual articles and reviews. By the early 1990’s it was closing in on 1,000 pages of ads every month. I did order a 12 MHz 80286 IBM-AT clone with a huge 20 MB hard disk for under $2,000 for the company  in 1987. The Apple Lisa cost more and did less. The more powerful Commodore Amiga was mis-marketed; it could have been a serious third party as Apple and Microsoft rose from the chaos that was the small computer market.

There was no internet, but I had CompuServe. They charged $6/hr and no monthly fee, back then. But modems were only up to 1200 baud (0.00012 MB/s). It was text only.

Actually, the interesting part of the pile is a collection of minutes and memos from board meetings as the company imploded under (what I now recognize as) conflicting styles of mismanagement. Those notes are hilarious, in retrospect. Fresh out of school I learned how to run a start-up into the ground. Although technically a Vice President, I was actually just an engineer; was neutral and safe from the political machinations that chewed up the bosses. As it turned out,  I worked for a couple of months without pay. But it was interesting.

I guess that the object lesson is that I treasure learning experiences. These mementos remind me of my early heyday in that era when computer literati were a small club.

An Odd Number

I recently had jury duty. The number on my badge is one of the evocative ones, and made me think of a souvenir that was available in the gift shop in the building where my cousin used to work. Today’s object is that little pewter pin that I decided to wear above my badge while on duty.

911 badge and mementoMy pewter pin is not really the focal object. It was evoked by the the number.  The number is actually the object of interest.

This prime number. The sequence of digits that the FCC decreed in the 1970’s to herald and imply a call of distress via telephone, like “SOS” (di-di-dit da-da-dah di-di-dit) was the distress call of the telegraph. This number even visually resembles the former towers that come to every American’s mind when they hear the number. I wonder if the attackers considered any of this when choosing the date nine years ago.

The number has almost religious significance in our culture. Although most of the court folk — lawyers, clerks, fellow jurors — hailed me as “nine-eleven”, but one particular sheriff called out this, and only this, three digit number as three individual digits: “Nine-one-one”.

My cousin is fine. He got a different job after the first serious attack on those buildings in 1993.