Archive for the 'Historical' Category

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.HPX 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:


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

Click to Enlarge

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.

Click to Enlarge

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.

Click to Enlarge

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.