Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Two Fake Science Papers

Abstract of a scientific paper written in the style of a postmodern humanities scholar:

The implications of inertia have been ably limned by Newton, Euler and others in both a point-mass and extended body milieu. Later workers such as Einstein and Bohr provided differently paradigmed anti-absolutist and post-continuum perspectives that served to undermine and transgress old assumptions in diverse directions. In the present work, multiple strands of thought are compared, contrasted and combined to result in a new framework within which is developed, inter alia, an anti-post-post-modern reckoning of the precession rate of a spinning hoop.

Abstract of the ideal engineering paper:

The orthogeometric method has been used to derive a governing equation for the number of nodes in a directed network. Using Hopf's Theorem, it is shown that the governing equation has precisely four solutions for boundary conditions that cover all situations of practical interest. A special case of the first solution recovers the well-known result that traffic circles are better than stoplights. The solution set provides additional low-cost traffic-control strategies with a lower-bound reduction of 93% in travel delays for Los Angeles with no changes to existing vehicle characteristics, total road mileage or right-of-way width.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out

We just finished a family viewing of A Christmas Story with its immortal line "You'll shoot your eye out!" At the end of the movie, Ralphie very nearly does shoot his eye out, but he was luckier than my dad was...

Dad has been gone for six years now, but let's hear it from the old man in his own words. This happened in about 1945.

My two best friends when we lived at Glen Alum [West Virginia] were Jerry Dunman and Buddy Collins, brother of Margaret and Jean. We did a lot of playing up in the hills surrounding Glen Alum and the popular game of our age group at that time was Cowboys and Indians. Jerry, Buddy and I had constructed some bows from which we would shoot dried 'stick weeds' as arrows. Anxious to try them out and knowing if our parents knew about them they would be confiscated, we decided to go up on the mountain for a trial run. Where we started up the hill happened to be right in front of the Gannons' house. Mrs. Gannon (mother of Charles, Ernest, Jr. and Kenneth) was working her yard and as we passed she spoke that well known phrase "You boys better be careful or you'll shoot your eye out with those things." Yeah, sure. As if we would do anything so stupid. Score one for Mrs. Gannon because that's exactly what we did. I was hiding behind a tree and Buddy, I believe, was sitting on a branch of another tree. I stuck my head out and before I could draw it back I felt a blow like someone had hit me with a fist in the eye. Buddy had launched a stick weed in my direction and validated Mrs. Gannon's warning. We ran off the mountain and my mother took me to the company doctor. This happened to be Dr. Kayle who was not known for his gentle bedside manner. He took one look at me and said, "Boy, you've lost yourself an eye." This seemed ironic to me considering the fact that he also had been blinded in one eye sometime in his past. He put a patch on it and told my mother they should take me to the hospital. The hospital was in Welch, which I believe was about fifty miles away. Since we didn't have a car it was decided that we would wait until the next day and catch the train. During the night, infection set in and I became delirious. My father, who had become general foreman of the mine by this time, called Mr. Boyd, Emerson and Robert's father, whom he knew had a '37 Studebaker, and Mr. Boyd saved my life by getting out of bed and driving us to Welch. The doctor said if we had waited until the next day the infection would have caused damage to my brain and I would have died. I would like to extend my belated thanks to Bob for his father's compassion.

Dad was fitted with an artificial eye he could pop out any time. I don't think he enjoyed it when I brought my friends around and said, "Hey, Dad, show them how you can take your eye out." On the other hand it is true that he once made himself a Halloween costume using a spare eye set right in the middle of his forehead.

Once, for some reason, he had to have a new eye made and I went with him to pick it up. It was made by one guy working in a little office up in a high-rise somewhere on the east side of Cleveland. The office was strewn with all kinds of eyes in various states of manufacture. They were made of some kind of ceramic, and he painted them himself. They were extremely realistic -  the guy was quite an artist. You would never be able to tell Dad's eye was artificial just by looking at it. I can still remember the smell of the paints and glazes as we waited for the eye to be finished.  

(Does it strike you as odd that he not only remembered the year and make of the car that took him to the hospital, but included it in the story?)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Five Warning Signs That You Will Soon Die

These days you constantly hear people worried about closing "gaps" in educational outcomes, and it's not surprising that all the schemes for closing the gaps involve taking resources away from kids who are doing well and giving them to kids who aren't doing well.

It has to be that way, because if the same education were offered to everyone, it is fairly obvious this would increase inequality, not decrease it. Present the same material to smart people and dumb people, and the smart people are going to get smarter, while the dumb people might get a little smarter or they might, through confusion and misapprehension, actually get a little dumber. There might be a big gap between the top student and bottom student in a high school class, but send both of them to MIT for four years and the gap is going to get exponentially bigger. And it's not confined to academic knowledge. Someone tried to teach me how to lay up composites once, and the sole result was that we both ended up angry.

Was this movie a work of fiction?

This is why the Internet, contrary to the conventional wisdom, is increasing inequality. When colleges make their courses available for free online, this gives a huge advantage to the tiny slice of people who are already smart enough to benefit, and leaves everyone else back at the starting line. People think that tiny slice includes a lot of people who would otherwise continue in ignorance. I doubt it. I think the tiny slice is mostly made up of people who would eventually find the knowledge somehow (they're smart, remember), and the online courses just make it easier for them.

I just visited a middle-of-the-road website, time.com. Putting aside the question of whether the left-hand side of the bell curve would even go there, as opposed to, say, tmz.com, let's look at what's on the site and how different people might react to it. It's a very big page, so it's easy to find stuff meant to mislead. "Science Confirms James Bond is an Alcoholic" - dumb person learns that scientists have the ability to diagnose fictional characters. "1 in 14 Americans Faced Identity Theft Last Year" - dumb person learns 1 in 14 Americans had their identities stolen last year. "Baseball is About to Get Even More Boring" - easily bored person learns that most people think baseball is boring. "SNL to Add Black Female Cast Member" - dumb person learns that this is a first. Our dim friend loses interest and goes on over to the Huffington Post, where he clicks on an ad to find the seven warning signs that cancer is growing in his body and the ten things he must never do after age 50.  Is he smarter or dumber for the experience?

If a certain educational system made dumb people twice as smart, but smart people ten times as smart, I would consider that to be a good system for us all. But some people of course wouldn't. It's a political question.

Of course, you and I don't need to worry about this, because we're clearly smart enough to only take in information that will continue to make us smarter, and to avoid information that will make us dumber, right? And we can be sure of this because...we're smart enough to know, uh...help me out here...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Sound of Technology

I taught a class on space missions earlier this year, and suggested some space-related music to break the grind of studying. There is of course The Planets by Holst. I feel the John Glenn launch scene in The Right Stuff, accompanied by Holst, justifies the entire space program There's also some pop music --- "Space Oddity", famously performed in space by astronaut Chris Hadfield (lots of people think it's called "Major Tom") and a weird song called "Let X=X" by Laurie Anderson that includes the line "Satellites are out tonight." I warned my students away from "Rocket Man" by Elton John. It's an anti-space song --- he says that Mars is no place to raise your kids and is cold as hell.

Personally, I find it impossible to work with music playing; I can't concentrate. But for some reason I've developed certain...hypotheses...about the music people listened to while they were making some kind of groundbreaking technical advance.

It is said that most people who worked on the Apollo program were under 30. Someone who was 30 at the height of the Apollo program in 1966 would have been 18 in 1954 and most likely in the pre-rock demographic. So, while I would like to think someone had "Good Vibrations" cued up during key structural dynamics tests, I don't think a lot of rock was played in the workshops of Apollo.

But, around 1970, everything changed. Before 1970, astronauts looked like this:

Gordo Cooper, 1963

Then something got into the Houston water supply, and astronauts started looking like this:

Garriott, Owen K.
Owen Garriott, aboard Skylab in 1973

To be fair, it's hard to shave in space, but that is some handlebar he's got going there.

So I think after 1970, say during the planning for the later Apollo missions, someone was listening to "Aquarius" by the surprisingly nonwhite Fifth Dimension. I can't be sure they named the Apollo 13 LM after that song, but if the Apollo 10 CSM could be named after a comic strip character, anything is possible.

Then they moved on the the Shuttle. For the sole reason that the Shuttle was designed in Downey, California, and the Carpenters were from Downey, California, I always imagine someone drawing up the body flap for the Orbiter with "Close to You" on the radio. The Carpenters also recorded a song called "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" but that was far too silly. We engineers are conservative folk, even when we're designing ass-kicking rockets.

How about another technical field? Steve Jobs made no secret of the fact that he was a huge fan of countercultural music like Dylan and the Beatles, but let's face it, Jobs was no engineer. His biggest contribution to the Apple II was probably the case. On the other hand, Steve Wozniak, who designed the entire freaking computer nearly single-handed, did so while listening to 8:05 by Moby Grape. My evidence? I have none. Woz just seems like a Moby Grape kind of guy.

Jobs, if you play the White Album one more time, I'm gonna assault you with this soldering iron. (Kidding. Steve Wozniak is too nice to say something like that.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Vive le HP-97

I just finished building a bookcase with a shelf for my antique calculators, so I got the calculators out of storage, cleaned them, and fired them up.

I don't know which one's my favorite, but this HP-97 is in my top three. According to the serial number, it was built by HP-Singapore in March 1978. This thing was $750 new. I guess people used to steal them, because it has a heavy-duty fitting for chaining it to your desk. I got this one for free from the surplus warehouse of The Aerospace Corporation back when I worked there.

The rechargeable battery pack is long demised and too expensive to rebuild, but the calc works just fine on a 4.8V travel adapter from an old LG phone. You shouldn't run most HP calculators without a functioning battery pack, because the batteries help regulate the current, but the HP-97 does this internally. Plus, the LG adapter is just barely able to run the calc (the "low battery" light glows) so it's safe.

This model went out of production in 1984, but I saw old-timers using them to do solid rocket ballistics calculations in the early 2000s. They used a company-written program stored on magnetic cards that could be read by the calc when passed through the slot to the left of the display.

So what did you get for your $750? First of all, you got a very durable, professional-grade piece of equipment. The keys have a solid, high-quality feel and they all work fine on this nearly 36-year-old calc. The card reader doesn't work any more due to a rubber roller that tended to dry out and fall apart after many years. I recently fixed an identical roller on an HP-67 but haven't done it on my -97.

The best part is the thermal printer. 36 years old and it still works! Heck, the paper is probably 20 years old! This calculator was manufactured right around the time I started using computers, and in that time I've probably gone through 8 printers, but this one keeps on chugging. Mind you I only play with it about once a year.

I just printed this

This is a programmable calculator. To program it, you essentially store the sequence of keystrokes that you would use to solve a problem manually. It has looping, branching and I/O instructions like any language. If you don't store the program on a magnetic card, you have to re-enter it every time you want to use it. Turning the calculator off erases its memory. Programs and data were stored in separate parts of memory - you could save 224 8-bit programming steps and 26 numbers. That amounts to about one-quarter of a kilobyte.

It's interesting to contrast the HP-97, released in 1976, with personal computers of the time. In 1976, nothing we would recognize as a PC was available for the home market, but the very next year brought the Apple II, the Commodore PET and the TRS-80. Each of those would have cost you more than $750. But within a couple of years, for that price you could get an Atari 400 with 8K of memory, plus a nice dot-matrix printer. The Atari would drive a TV display with full-screen color graphics, compared to the HP-97's single line of red LED digits. But the HP-97 remained in production until 1984, the year of the Mac! You can see that HP was following a whole different paradigm than the PC industry. HP was making industrial equipment for Serious People, not home entertainment gadgets.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pharmacy Phun

I think Obamacare is a disastrously bad solution, but at least it recognizes that there's a real problem: the existing healthcare system was apparently designed by a group of insane comedians on a four-day crack binge.  Let me regale you with an anecdote.

I went to a new doctor here in Schenectady for a regular check-up. He asks me if I'm currently taking any medications, and I say yes, I'm taking a certain medicine that features Larry the Cable Guy in its advertising. [I don't want to say the real name, because Google will send me ads.]

Says he, "Do you want me to write you a script for that?"

Says I, "No, I buy it over-the-counter at Sam's Club. It only costs me about $10 a month."

Says he, "Nah, let me write you a script; insurance will pay for it."

Me: "I think there'll be a co-pay, so I don't want a script."

Doc: "I'll write you one. I'll send it straight to the pharmacy, no trouble at all."

I'm tired of arguing with him, so I decide to let him write the script but plan on just not picking it up. He must be a new doc and really excited about his prescription-writing powers.

Two weeks later, the pharmacy leaves me a voicemail stating that my prescription has been waiting and that if I don't pick it up, it'll be discarded. I wait a few days but then the rule-following instinct in me starts to kick in. I decide to pick up the script. After all, I pass the pharmacy every day between work and home.

I arrive at the pharmacy and go to the pick-up counter. They can't find the prescription. I say, "Maybe it's been discarded. I might have waited too long to pick it up."

The pharmacy tech says, "Yeah, it's been returned to the shelf. [Can't they just go and get it off the shelf? Maybe it was put on a really high shelf and they misplaced their ladder.] Plus, there was a problem with your insurance."

I say, "OK, I'll call the insurance company and straighten it out," intending to just walk out of there and forget about it.

Four days pass. Another voicemail from the pharmacy: my prescription is ready for pickup, and also they need me to bring my insurance card in so they can re-confirm my coverage. I figure they must have called the doc and the insurance company and straightened everything out.

So today I stop by the pharmacy again, go to the pick-up window and give my name. Pharmacy tech can't find the prescription. I recount the history of the prescription to her and she looks something up on her computer. "Yeah, the prescription was rejected by your insurance company because [wait for it... wait for it...] it's available over-the-counter. They won't pay for anything available over the counter. It's $187 if you want to pay out of pocket."

This raises a whole host of questions of which I will only list one: why did they keep asking me to come to the pharmacy? Did they figure I might buy some candy bars and fashion magazines?

Perhaps this explains why a transparently nutty system like Obamacare could ever gain support: the bar set by the existing system is so very, very low.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Everywhere a sign

Since I moved to New York I've noticed some differences in the road signage. First off, there isn't enough of it. Even fairly major intersections tend not to have overhead direction signs, and on-ramps to the interstates are poorly signed. In other states, entrance ramps are marked by the standard big green signs like this one:

 Here, sometimes all you get is a shield, or what is called a "reassurance sign":

Also, they usually use ALL CAPS, which are harder to read than Mixed Case.

But there is one road sign here in New York I really like: the airport sign. Here's one that I took a picture of this morning (please disregard finger):

What's so great about this sign? Look at the silhouette of the airplane. Do you see that bump near the nose? You might think that's supposed to be the upper deck on a 747, but it's much too short. No, that is clearly a bubble canopy. And the wing seems to be riding high. No airliner has a high wing and a bubble canopy. No sir, that is definitely a B-47 bomber! They took off the engines and the drop tanks, but that long wing and stubby rudder are unmistakable. I venture to say that the guy who drew up the sign based it on this very photograph:


I've always liked the old B-47. It was one of the Air Force's first jet-propelled heavy bombers, and the first to feature those graceful, highly swept wings. It's not a stretch to say that the experience Boeing got building the B-47 led directly to the modern airliner. And now it's leading you directly to a modern airport, at least in New York.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Apple III Gets a Fan

I was flipping through some back issues of Byte magazine from the 1980s and noticed an interesting ad. This is from May 1981:

That's an Apple III on the left, next to its older brother the Apple II. Or, as the aficionados used to type it, an Apple /// and an Apple ][. The Apple III had been out for about a year when this ad was run.

The Apple III was not a successful computer. It was expensive for an 8-bit machine, and there was not much software available that took advantage of its improvements over the Apple II. But its real problem was reliability. There were some design flaws that caused loose chips and shorted solder traces. Also, it ran hot to the touch, and people thought the excessive heat was causing the failures. Supposedly, Steve Jobs did not permit the designers to include a fan (because of the noise) or even air vents (because they looked bad).

Look closely at the ad...there's an old-time fan lying on top of the Apple III.

My first thought was that some disgruntled Apple engineer snuck the fan into this ad as a dig at Jobs. But Jobs was well-known to control every detail of Apple's advertising. No, I think the fan was put there by Jobs himself. I can see him hanging the ad in Apple's lobby and yelling to passing employees, "You wanted a fan for the Apple III? Here's your *@#!@ fan!"

Monday, October 21, 2013

Apple stack cake with innovative syrup

I saw an absolutely nauseating commercial for DirecTV during the Ohio State game on Saturday, featuring some guy stuck in a shack with an extreme caricature of a "hillbilly" family. As long as that kind of crap is acceptable, don't expect me to shed tears over the Washington Redskins.

With that out of the way, I'd like to show off some real hillbilly culture. When my dad was in his final illness (really, it was his only illness; the guy had the constitution of a battleship), we asked him if there was anything we could get him, and he only had one request. He said, "My mother used to make a spice cake with apples between the layers..." Unfortunately, I had no idea what he was talking about, and couldn't make it for him. But some years later I ran across a great book, Appalachian Home Cooking by Mark Sohn, which has a recipe for the apple stack cake. Apparently it is considered one of the most authentic Appalachian foods, right up there with sausage gravy, cornbread and soup beans.

The stack cake is made of layers of dense, gingerbread-like cake with an apple filling in between. Some versions call for more than 10 layers, but it's a very heavy and rich cake, so 4-6 layers are enough. You can glaze it if you want, but the cake is plenty sweet and moist without it.

I conjecture that this recipe is descended from the German dish Apfelpfannkuchen or "German apple pancake". Like a lot of Appalachian recipes, it was modified by the addition of a whole lot of sugar. Dad's mother probably learned how to make it from her mother, who was from a cluster of German families on the Virginia-Tennessee border. People usually think of mountaineers as Scots-Irish, but there were quite a few Germans, too.

You can get the recipe from Sohn's book or in many other versions on many other sites. In the most traditional version, the filling starts with dried apples, and the cake is sweetened with sorghum syrup rather than sugar or molasses. You end up reconstituting the apples anyway, so I don't feel too bad about using fresh apples. (Don't take the applesauce shortcut; it's too bland and runny.) The sorghum syrup is a tougher problem. I've only ever found it once, at a fruit stand, and the jar I found looked like it had been on the shelf for years.

I looked for a creative but authentic substitute for sorghum. I've made the stack cake with molasses, and it is very good. But this time I tried something new. I reasoned that maple syrup is just boiled-down sugary water, so why can't I make syrup from apple juice? If I used apple syrup instead of sorghum, the cake should be extra appley.

But I needed a full cup of syrup, and it would have taken a couple of gallons of expensive cider to make that. Plus, it's hard to find cider that isn't preserved with benzoate. Benzoate ruins the taste of cider, so if I boiled it down, the concentrated benzoate would probably be disgusting. The solution? Frozen apple juice concentrate. The only preservatives it has are a couple of weak acids, and it already has 75% of the water taken out!

Boiling down the apple syrup

So I emptied six cans of apple juice concentrate into a stockpot and boiled it down. After an hour, I had about three cups of deep red syrup thick enough to coat a spoon, so I turned off the heat and let the stuff cool overnight, which thickened it to a molasses-like consistency. Like molasses, you wouldn't want to eat this stuff straight. It's very strongly flavored and sour (which I guess explains why fruit has never been a viable source of cooking sugar.) Into the cake batter went one cup of this concentrated apple syrup.

The apple syrup. Don't drink it!

It turns out that I rediscovered something called boiled cider, which apparently is a traditional way of preserving cider in New England. Anyway, back to the stack cake.

I peeled, cored and sliced a bunch of smallish McIntosh apples for the filling.

Should have used bigger apples - less peeling!

Then I put some nutmeg and ginger on them and dried them in the oven for about half an hour. In hindsight I think this was a waste of time, because the next step is to boil them in cider. But starting with really dry apples might give you a more intense flavor. I had to cheat a little and put some cornstarch in to get the filling to thicken up.

Drying the apples. Could have skipped this.

The cake layers I made by pressing about a quarter-inch-thick layer of batter (really, it's more like cookie dough) into the bottom of a greased, no-stick round cake pan. 10 minutes in the oven and it's done, plus I did two at a time, so I had the four layers done in less than half an hour.

Two of the four cake layers

Then you just lay down the layers one at a time, and spread the filling between them. Keeping the layers in one piece is easy as long as you grease the pan ahead of time and let the cakes cool a little and harden up before flipping them out. I forgot to re-grease the pans for my second round of cake, so of course the fourth layer, which is the only one that shows, got a rip in the middle when I flipped it out. But I just stuck it back together.

Two layers stacked and filled

At this point in every cooking blog, it is obligatory to say how well it turned out. So...it turned out very well! The cake had a really intense, almost tart apple flavor from the syrup - it probably tasted more appley than the filling, which is mostly actual apples! Next time, I'll probably use half apple syrup and half molasses. You can only take a small slice at a time - it's like eating a very rich cookie instead of a cake. A little slice of this with a glass of milk and you're back in the holler in 1892 - although I am not sure where they would have gotten vanilla extract and ground spices back then.    


It should probably be eaten off a tin plate for increased authenticity

Friday, October 11, 2013

New Kinds of Money

This is not a post about the new $100 bill - it's a little more theoretical.

Let me preface this by saying that I have no training in economics except for two basic undergraduate courses. But I am pretty decent with numbers, so I allow myself to think I have some understanding of the economy. Given the reputation of economists these days, my ideas might even be worth more than theirs!

Economies have bubbles. Just in the last 15 years, we've gone through the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble. We may well be in a stock market bubble right now. But what is a bubble?

Let's back up and think about what money is. Money is something that has a lot more exchange value than consumption value. US currency is just pieces of paper. Maybe a big pile of it could keep you warm if you lit it on fire, but its real value is that it can be exchanged for things you can consume.  

Somebody will say the distinction between consumption value and exchange value is an illusion. What I mean is that the value of things you need to live, like food, has a floor. A mass panic could cause the value of gold to fall to zero tomorrow. The value of food can rise due to fads and rumors, just like gold, but it will never fall to zero, because people must eat. The value of farm equipment is partly tied to the value of food, and so on up the chain. By the time you get to the end of the chain, you have stuff like Beanie Babies, whose value has nothing to do with consumption. They are a pure exchange good subject to panic-driven bubbles and busts.
If you're still with me, it's time for the bombshell: money is the perfect bubble. Its value is solely determined by human psychology (except, to a very limited extent, when it's on a gold standard.) But, you say, if money is a bubble, why doesn't its value fluctuate in wild and unpredictable ways? Well, sometimes it does - ask anyone who lived in Argentina in 1990. And second, natural fluctuations in its value can be counteracted by a central bank with the legal ability to print money or "destroy" it by selling securities. I don't know about you, but knowing that government policy may be the only thing keeping the value of money stable doesn't provide much comfort.

But if money is a bubble, then bubbles are money. Bubbles in things like Beanie Babies or dot-com stocks boil down to the economy spontaneously creating new kinds of money --- goods that solely have exchange value. It's against the law to print your own money, but if you could somehow orchestrate a bubble in, say, tulip bulbs, it would be just like printing your own money. So it shouldn't be surprising that people are always trying to do it.    

The thing people don't like about bubbles is their instability. Values get far above the floor provided by essential human needs, so they can fluctuate wildly. All it takes is a fast-spreading rumor and suddenly your Beanie Babies are worthless, even though they're just as cute and cuddly as when you bought them. Given that, I think we can all agree that it would be a very good thing if my claim that money is a bubble were to be totally wrong.

Friday, September 27, 2013

How to Profit from Vanished Knowledge

If you know a little bit about a person, with some basic Internet search skills it's usually possible to figure out what he's been up to since about the late 90s. For example, if someone claims to have graduated from University A in 2003, and you find a few stale old pages mentioning him on UniversityA.edu, you can be pretty sure he's telling the truth. On the other hand, if you instead find him all over the much less prestigious JuniorCollegeB.edu, he's probably lying.

But this only applies to Internet-era events. You have little chance of proving whether someone spent time as a sword-swallower in the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1960s. If the person is roughly old enough to have done what he says he did at the time he says he did it, you won't be able to prove him wrong without going to extraordinary and expensive lengths, and even then you might never know.

There are some remarkable examples of people getting away with outrageous lies about their basic life experiences for years and years. The famous pilot Jackie Cochran claimed to have been orphaned and grown up dirt poor. In reality, she was neither orphaned nor poor, and the relatives who lived with her later in life were not, as she claimed, her adoptive family, but her regular old biological family. It's not clear why she lied about this, but the story was good enough to fool her friend Chuck Yeager, who repeated it in his autobiography, along with an anecdote about her having hired a private eye to search out her birth family, then declining to read the resulting report.

Then there's German politician Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was caught with a plagiarized Ph.D. from 2006, and an American academic named Leslie Berlowitz who said she had a Ph.D. but didn't. You notice that the 2006 case was only one of plagiarism, because that's harder to detect than an outright lie. Berlowitz said she earned a Ph.D. in 1969. Good luck Googling that one. I wouldn't be surprised if one in three Ph.D.'s "earned" before 1990 are completely fictitious.  

I predict that people who are old enough will start making more and more fanciful claims about their pre-Internet lives. The basic human drive to make ourselves look like heroes has been taken away by Google - at least, it has for people who were not adults before 1995. Those who were will use the mists of time to their advantage.

By the way, did I ever mention that when I was in high school back in the 80s, I took first place in the Midwest Regional Science Fair for a project in which I demonstrated a hypertext protocol on my high school's computer network? No? Well, that fair merged with a much larger fair years ago, and their records have apparently gone missing, so you'll just have to take my word for it. I joke. The truth is, my high school didn't have a computer network, just a couple of sad old Apple IIs we wheeled around on AV carts. Or maybe it did. You'll never know!  

Monday, September 9, 2013

Technical words

1965: "I wrote a program for this computer."

1975: "I wrote some code for this machine."

1985: "I wrote some software for this hardware."

1995: "I wrote a script for this system."

2005: "I wrote a solution for this platform." (Yeccchh! Let's hope the day of software "solutions" has passed.)

2010: "I wrote an app for the cloud."

This reminds me of medical terminology. I tease my wife the doctor that when too many people start to talk about an illness, doctors invent a new name for it to restore some mystery. First it was scrofula, then consumption, then white plague, and finally tuberculosis, but doctors couldn't cure any of them. Doctors call a bruise a contusion, and if your finger was ripped off by a machine, it was "avulsed." They even have a cute, sort of Frenchified way of pronouncing centimeter --- it sounds something like "sawntimeter."

The French have influenced aeronautics, too. Thanks to them, we have the fuselage and even aviation itself. We like to pronounce envelope in the French way: "onvelope," meaning the limiting values of some parameter.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alcoholic archaeology

Last week I was visiting my mom, and she asked me to fish something out of her attic. While I was up there, I spotted an ancient carton of beer, way out near the edge of the attic where the roof meets the soffit. I'd seen it there before, but this time something finally made me crawl out on my belly and grab the sucker. I ended up filthy but it was worth it.

The box turned out to be a pre-pull-tab, pre-plastic-ring six pack of Stroh's. It was left with three empty cans in it. Some Googling revealed that this can design dates to the late 1950s, so it must have been left there by the carpenter who built the roof - the house was built the same year man first flew in space (that's 1961 for you civilians.) That means it sat there unmolested for 52 years. Because it was so far from the attic entry, it was probably left there before the plywood was even put on the roof.

The box and cans are in remarkable shape for their age. True, they have been out of the weather, but the attic is un-insulated, so they've seen 52 yearly temperature and humidity cycles. The attic is subzero in the dead of winter, and 120 degrees in the summer. After wiping the dust off, the box looks brand new except for the fact that it's been ripped open. And the cans have only the tiniest spots of corrosion. 

The cans are steel and heavy as hell. They've got a big welded seam running up the side. and they have no pop-top or pull tab - they had to be opened using a church key. I can picture the carpenter whipping out a big keyring with the church key on it, popping open a cold one, and draining it, thinking about how he's going to go to the Painesville Speedway on Friday night.  

That blue printing on the lid is a tax stamp from the Great State of Ohio. Here's a back view of the can and a bottom view of the box. "Brewed and packed by the Stroh Brewery Co., Detroit 26, Michigan." Keep America Beautiful! I am not sure we did, especially not Detroit.

In the center of the box bottom is the logo of Gaylord Boxes. Wikipedia informs me that there is currently a Gaylord Container, but that company was named after the generic term "gaylord" for a bulk cardboard box, which in turn was named after the original Gaylord Box Company that made this Stroh's box. 

Stroh's is still made, but it's just a label of Pabst now. The Stroh family sold out in 2000 after 149 years in the brewery business. I used to like those "Alex the Dog" commercials where the guy had trained his dog to fetch him Stroh's Beer. 

The ironic thing is, as a kid I collected beer cans, a very popular proletarian hobby. My collection started out as a big pyramid in my bedroom, but Mom got sick of looking at them and she made me stash them in the attic.  But these cans are more valuable than anything that was in my collection, and they were right there in the attic all along! The collection went to the dump decades ago, except for one very special can I've kept all these years... 

Yes, it's a Billy Beer can. It is almost miraculous that this can hasn't been dented. My dad --- rest his soul --- drank the beer out of it in 1977. He pronounced it sub-par, as did the rest of the beer-drinking public.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

An Old-Fashioned Education

Today I was thinking about the education I got as a mechanical engineering major at Ohio State back around 1990, and how antiquated it seems now. Maybe it was antiquated then, too. The big change seems to have come in the mid-90s. Before that, you did some things by hand and some things on a computer. Since then, you do everything on a computer. 

Of course, the underlying principles of engineering do not change, and these principles can be ingrained by hand problem-solving or by doing it on a computer. But engineering involves a good deal of technical knowledge as well. You can know Newton's Laws as well as the next guy, but if he can solve problems using Matlab and you can't, guess who is going to make more money? It's the technical things that get outdated very quickly. I spent a semester learning Pascal. It was the computer language of the future in 1987.

To start off, every engineering major had to take a year of Engineering Graphics. This involved drawing cones, cylinders, and other solids from various perspectives, using a little drafting kit you had to buy at the bookstore. They would show you a line and a cone, and you'd have to graphically figure out the two points where the line pierced the surface of the cone. This was not too hard for me, because I'd taken a year and a half of drafting in high school (against my guidance counselor's advice), but it completely defeated about 20% of the kids in the class. It was what we would call a "major weed-out class". 

Engineering Graphics served me well indeed, because in my job interview with Honda, they asked me to draw a three-view of a little bracket, which I did quickly and correctly. I can guess they'd interviewed some people who couldn't do it, by the way the interviewers sort of smiled and nodded at each other when I finished. I also made a lot of piping drawings by hand at a co-op job. Though I've never hand-drawn a blueprint since then, it's handy to be able to sketch things. That was not a talent I was born with by any means.

We took a two-course sequence called System Dynamics, which involved calculating the dynamic response of systems such as car suspensions, servo-valves and thermostats. This was really important in the days when most controllers were mechanical. As my roommate said at the time, System Dynamics "is" mechanical engineering. By that, he meant you had to analyze a system with a useful function, not just isolated components. 

The antiquated parts of System Dynamics were two. First, there was a heavy emphasis on analog systems that dealt in real, physical quantities like velocity and pressure. Nowadays, electronics are so cheap and adaptable that you use them wherever you possibly can, so all the controlling is done abstractly, by programming the controller. The other antiquated part was our use of analog computers to solve problems. In physics you learn about electric circuits that are analogous to mechanical or thermal systems. Well, in System Dynamics we actually built the circuits, excited them with a signal generator, and observed the solution using an oscilloscope. That's an analog computer. 

The System Dynamics way of doing things extended into several other courses, including a measurements lab and an automatic controls course. I don't work in controls, so I can't say for sure, but I would bet that no controls engineer was using analog computers even back then. 

The System Dynamics professor was fussy and made us write our reports by hand using a strict format. You had to buy special report covers just for that class, and plot up all your data on graph paper, by hand. You had to buy semi-log and log-log graph paper to do those kinds of plots, and then label your plots with adhesive labels. The guy was a stickler. If you failed to label an axis, or used the wrong kind of paper, you'd lose a letter grade. 

At the very end of System Dynamics, we were introduced to a (digital) computer program, CSMP, that could be used to simulate some simple systems. Sounds modern, but you had to run this program in batch mode on a text terminal. You could get "graphical" output, but the program made it by printing characters. It built lines out of dashes and plotted points as asterisks. I had certainly used a PC before and was accustomed to running programs interactively, so batch mode was a real letdown. But the best part was the computer lab. The terminals were in a big room, all hooked up to an IBM mainframe in another building. You'd submit your job, and the output would be generated by a line printer (for you kids, a line printer is an impact printer that prints an entire line at a time instead of one character at a time.) 

If it wasn't too busy, you could hear the printer roar to life as your program executed. So help me, it sounded like a lawnmower. The printers were not physically accessible to the users. A flunky behind a counter would fetch your printout from the printer. The printout would have your student ID number (same as your social security number; nobody treated this as secret). There were 100 mail slots, numbered 00 to 99, and the flunky would put your printout in the slot with the last two digits of your ID number. Then you would go up and fetch your 30 pages of green-white fanfold, discover you'd misplaced a semicolon in your program, and go back to the terminal to fix it. God almighty was it tedious. It's not uncommon for a buggy program to generate excessive output. Today, the output goes to the screen and you just hit Ctrl-C to kill the job. Back then, the printer would run and run, and eventually the flunky would kill the job and stuff the hundreds of pages into your box.  

The last antique class I'll talk about was Kinematics. In this class, we learned graphical methods for solving kinematics problems. For example, to find the tangential component of a velocity vector, you'd draw the vector very carefully to scale, project it onto the tangential axis, and measure the projection to get the answer. It got more complicated from there. There were methods for designing cranks and linkages completely using these graphical methods. Needless to say, nobody designs anything using graphical methods any more.

Now, all those old fogeys who taught the classes would say that you learn the principles better when you do it by hand. And they may be right. Today, it's so easy to use a computer to generate mountains of numbers that some engineers start to think the numbers themselves are more important than what they represent. There's even a theory that the universe is really a big computer, the laws of physics are its software, and physical phenomena are its output. I think that's nutty, because while the fundamental laws of physics are very accurate, we have no evidence they are exact, and I don't know how we would know if they were. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The 1989 Cleveland National Air Show

Sadly, there will be no air show in Cleveland or many other places this year. But as luck would have it, I ran across a program from the 1989 Cleveland National Air Show in a pile of old magazines my dad left me.

September of 1989 wasn't that long ago (to me, anyway), but this thing seems really dated. In the summer of 1989 I was going to OSU at night and working construction in Columbus in the day. I don't remember going to this air show, but I may well have. Later that very month, I went back to fall classes at OSU and met my future wife at a card game in Taylor Tower.

There's something interesting on almost every page of the program, but I'll try to be sparing. Let's start with the front cover and then skip to the back cover.

1989 was the 60th anniversary of the National Air Races, which were mostly in Cleveland. The Air Races were a huge and extremely dangerous event. They were moved out of Cleveland in the late 40s after a P-51 went into a front yard in Berea and killed a young mother and her baby.  

The back cover sports an ad with a very recognizable logo. But unless you're over 30 years old and a native Clevelander, you're saying, "Who the hell is Kenny King and what does he have to do with KFC?"  Kenny King had the Cleveland KFC franchises but he sold other stuff like hamburgers right in the same restaurants. You would go to Kenny King's and you could get KFC, kind of like you can go to Target and get an Icee. (Except back then it was still called Kentucky Fried Chicken, because it was still socially acceptable to eat fried food. Finger lickin' good! - it's right on the bucket if you look closely.) The Kenny Kings all became regular KFC's well before I moved back to Cleveland in 2006.  

Now that I've gotten to looking through the program, there's too much for one post. So I'll just show two more ads. First...

MK Ferguson of Cleveland designed the plant that built the B-1B bomber. How about that? 

Last comes my favorite thing in the whole program: this little quarter-page ad:

Dr.Uonelli was a doctor in my hometown. His house really did look like the little drawing on the map - it was a regular house in a neighborhood, but with a long addition containing his office. I never met Uonelli, but I had a friend, Matt, who lived in his neighborhood and was taken up for some rides in the doc's airplane. Once I rode my bike over to Matt's house, and we cruised by the doc's house and knocked on his door. He wasn't home, but thirty years later I remember a little decal on his door that said, "Genitalia is NOT the national airline of Italy." Just the thing for an Italian flight doctor, I suppose. Where the hell would you buy something like that?    

Maybe next time I'll show some actual airplanes from the program.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Two Kinds of Mechanics

A friend sent me this comic in which a guy with a toolbox offers technical advice to someone running a particle accelerator. It's titled "Quantum Mechanic".

My field of specialization within mechanical engineering is called "applied mechanics" or "engineering mechanics" or for the truly status-seeking, "rational mechanics." We like to think of ourselves as better than mere mechanical engineers because of our conspicuous use of mind-bending mathematics. Some in the field refer to themselves as "mechanicians" but this has never really caught on.

Both mechanics and engineering could probably benefit from new names. Mechanics are people who fix mechanical things, and this obviously has only a remote connection with mechanics, the academic field. You have academically trained engineers, and then you have guys who run locomotives. A colleague used to show up at work every Halloween dressed as a locomotive engineer, in a striped hat and overalls and the whole getup.

Then there are "operating engineers", who are as far as I can tell are people who operate certain kinds of mechanical equipment. In college I had a summer job as a construction worker in a high-rise that was being built in Columbus. We often had to take the elevator between floors, but were not allowed to push the buttons. No. We had to tell a fat guy sitting on a folding chair which button to push. He rode up and down all day in the elevator, proudly sporting an "Operating Engineers Local XX" badge. Here I was slogging through differential equations when all I had to do to be an engineer was join a union.

And mechanical engineering conjures up, what else, but mechanisms. People hear mechanical engineer and they picture those giant flywheels you see in museums. But mechanisms are only a small part of mechanical engineering. The field encompasses thermodynamics, controls, fluid dynamics, and other subfields. We should call ourselves Physical Technologists or Gods of Physical Thunder or something more appropriate.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mystical flying numbers

Numbers are usually a means to an end, but some people find mystical qualities in the numbers themselves. Ever since the ancient Greeks were shaken by the discovery of irrational numbers (and probably before that) people have attached supernatural qualities to certain numbers. You know all quarterbacks want to have an even number, preferably 12, and all running backs will take 32 if they can get it. Some airlines omit row 13 from aircraft, and I am told that in East Asian cultures, the number 4 is associated with death. In Japanese, the word for four is shi, which also means death. Sometimes they say yon instead of shi for four, kind of like we might say darn instead of damn.When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, my Japanese colleagues at Honda often had occasion to take a cab from the airport. Unfortunately, one of the major cab companies chose the phone number 444-4444 and plastered it all over their cabs. On the other hand, East Asians like 8. I once had a phone number full of 8s, and a Chinese friend said I should try to sell it to Asians.

Airplane companies and their marketing consultants have tapped into these superstitions for decades. The basic idea is that a higher number must mean it's a better airplane. In the early days of airliners, a simple sequential numbering system took hold. From the Douglas company came the DC series, with the DC-3 in the 1930s being their first real airliner.To Douglas's credit, they never got fancy with the numbers. By the 1960s they were up to the DC-10, and they continued the same sequence even after they were bought out by McDonnell. They managed to produce the MD-11 and had sketched out an MD-12, but that never came to fruition, and the line came to an end with the buyout of McDonnell Douglas by Boeing in 1997. Perhaps the buyout was facilitated by the knowledge that the next McDonnell Douglas plane would have to be the MD-13. These were the large airliners. McDonnell Douglas did branch off another line from the smaller DC-9, creating a stretched version called the MD-80. That line got as far as MD-95 before the buyout.

Boeing, on the other hand, gave a little more thought to the connotations of their numbers. They reached 377 in the 1940s, and someone must have liked the sound of those lucky 7s, because of course their first jetliner was the 707. (Aside: the 707 was called the 367-80 or "Dash-80" in the prototype stage. There was also a 720 that you've probably never heard of.) They went on to the 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787. They seemingly skipped the 717, but that number had been used internally for a couple of things. When Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, they slapped the 717 label over the MD-95, but few of those planes ever sold.

Now we get to the real marketing genius. In the late 1950s, Convair, a successful producer of turboprop airliners, wanted to get into the jet business. Their competition was the 707 and the DC-8. They originally called their first jet the Convair 600, which was a continuation of their turboprop line which had reached 580 by then. But some marketing genius must have looked around and seen the 707 and DC-8 sporting "higher" numbers. So they changed it to the Convair 880, with the pretext that 880 feet per second was the planned speed of their new jet. They then went one better with the 990, which of course was supposed to go 990 feet per second. Unfortunately, the 880 and 990 were both beautiful dogs, and they nearly bankrupted the Convair company. But you can still see old Convair turboprops all over the world.

Lockheed had built a sleek and successful piston-driven airliner called the Constellation, with no number used in marketing, but most of the large airplanes they built in the 1950s and 60s were military transports: the C-130, C-141 and C-5. (The military doesn't care about numbers. I make joke here. Numbering of military airplanes is laden with superstition as well.) When Lockheed decided in the mid-60s to build a jetliner, the main competitor was the DC-10. In fact, the design they eventually came up with was almost indistinguishable in appearance from the DC-10. The most obvious difference is that the DC-10's tail engine is not faired onto the fuselage. But this didn't hold back Lockheed's marketers. They said, screw it, we're going to match your bet and raise it: our plane will be the L-1011 (pronounced ten-eleven.)  It's like your DC-10, only one number better! The L-1011, like the Convair jets, was a commercial failure. Lockheed lost millions and never built another airliner.

Now, I'm sure that in every one of these cases, the marketing department came up with a cockamamie rationale for why those exact numbers were chosen (the 880 feet per second business is one.) Lockheed probably claimed they had an L-1010 on the drawing board, but it just wasn't up to snuff, so voila, the next plane had to be the L-1011. But I ain't buying it.    

Saturday, July 20, 2013

J.R. Edwards

So it's time for a post about one of the interesting characters in my family history.  Let's start in the recent past.

When I was ten, my mom announced a new baby was on the way, and there was some family discussion about what the baby should be named. If it was a girl, my mom would have picked the name, because she wanted a girl badly after two boys. But everyone offered up opinions on boy names.When the baby came, it was a boy, and my parents announced that his name would be Jacob Roe Henson. This wasn't one of the names that had been discussed; it seemed to have come out of nowhere.

Dad's mother, known to us as Mamaw (Appalachian for Grandma), turned white as a sheet when she heard the name. It would be years later before I fully understood why.

It transpired that Jacob Roe was Mamaw's father's name --- and she hated her father. Hated him so much she never spoke his name, which is why none of us except Dad knew where the name Jacob Roe came from.

His full name was Jacob Robillard Edwards. Years of genealogical research showed that Mamaw had pretty good grounds for hating the guy. J.R. Edwards was born in western North Carolina six weeks after the Civil War ended. He married early and had five kids by 1894. The kids seem to have stopped coming after that, even though in the summer of 1900 he was still with his family in Carolina. In 1901 he went to the area around the Tennessee/Virginia border to work as a logger. He never went back to North Carolina. Whether he left his wife directly, or had to go to Virginia for work and decided he didn't want to go back, I do not know.

In Virginia he met Nancy Jane Thomas and evidently had some trouble with her folks, because in a letter he said "they was not good people". He and Nancy went to West Virginia, where Mamaw, their oldest, was born in late 1902. They had three more children over the next six years. I have my doubts that he went through the legal formality of obtaining a divorce from his first wife, but he and Nancy lived as husband and wife in West Virginia.

In 1909, he once again moved on to greener pastures. He got a neighbor girl pregnant, and they ran off to seemingly the farthest point they could go without leaving the country: Bellingham, Washington. There was logging work there.

Nancy was left with four kids in a time when women couldn't get jobs. She took in laundry, but soon became ill and died in 1914. With J.R. long gone, the kids were effectively orphans. They were farmed out to Nancy's friend, but the friend's husband turned out to be a drunken jackass. So at 13, Mamaw had to manage her three younger brothers as they struggled to stay out of the way of their "benefactor". J.R. was nowhere to be found. Thus the hate.

The rest of Mamaw's story is another post. J.R. and his young paramour went to Washington, where he continued to work as a logger. At one point, and I believe this must have been during one of the minor British Columbia gold rushes, he decamped to Prince George, BC to work a gold stake, but nothing came of it. He had six more kids in Washington, the last born in the late 1920s when J.R. was in his sixties.    

Around 1932, letters from J.R. started arriving in the mailboxes of his kids, who were scattered between Indiana and West Virginia by then. He was unhappy, he said, overworked and unappreciated in his old age, and had come to regret leaving his West Virginia family behind. But, he implied, if only they would come out to Washington to visit him, he would tell them the whole story and they'd understand.

Mamaw, as well as her two brothers, Gary and Roe, never answered the letters. But their sister Fannie not only answered the letters, she started a correspondence with a heretofore unknown half-sister, Josephine, who was born to J.R. in Washington. Fannie also wrote to J.R.'s first family in North Carolina. But the letters, many of which I have, never answered the real question of why he ran. I suspect he didn't have a clear reason. He was just a rolling stone, a trait that has been passed down to several of his descendants, probably myself included. He said in one letter, "It is a poor idea for anyone to think where they live is the only place." On that I have to agree with the old bounder.

In 1936, word came that J.R. had drowned in the Satsop River, near the Schaefer Brothers' logging camp where he still worked at the age of 71. Family legend had it that foul play was involved, or that it was suicide, but all the legal documents say he just fell into the river while fishing. His tackle was found on the shore.

Why did Dad name his son after someone he knew his mother hated? Years later he claimed it was inadvertent. He said he just liked the name Jacob, and also had an Uncle Roe, and didn't realize Uncle Roe's name was from his father, J.R. Edwards. I don't buy that; I think he did it on purpose to annoy Mamaw, who he never really got along with. J.R. was his favorite ancestor, which is puzzling. Dad had very rigid views on the sanctity of marriage, yet he overlooked the fact that J.R. had run off with a neighbor girl and left his kids destitute.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Kevin Starr's California

California has fascinated me since I was a teenager, and I got to live in both the Bay Area and LA/Long Beach when it was compatible with my family situation. So I've been meaning to read Kevin Starr's multi-volume history of California for years. I've finally had time to start, and I started with my favorite era, 1950-1963, to which Starr devotes an entire 576-page volume.

Far be it from me to impeach Starr's history (the book is fascinating), but I did find a few factual errors in his discussion of the California aerospace industry. I don't think any of these errors affected the thrust of his narrative in the least, yet I feel compelled to correct them, because I read about this sort of thing for fun.

1. There is a paragraph about the B-36 bomber that implies it was built in San Diego. While Convair designed and mocked up the plane in San Diego, it was built by Convair in Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth, Texas.

2. The Lockheed "Skunk Works"originated not in a "remote location in a skunk-infested field" but rather in beautiful downtown Burbank. The name seems to have come from the smells of a nearby circus tent.

3. Alan Shepard, America's first astronaut, rode into space not on a San Diego-built Atlas, but on a Redstone built by Chrysler in Detroit (!) That was the only manned launch of a Redstone; it was really only used because the Atlas wasn't ready in time. However, Chrysler did go on to build the booster stage of the Saturn I-B that was used in test launches of some Apollo hardware. The Saturn I-B booster was pretty much just 8 Redstones strapped together.

4. Starr credits Rocketdyne of Canoga Park with a few too many programs. As Starr says, Rocketdyne built the engines for Navaho, Redstone, Atlas, Thor, Saturn and Jupiter. But Skybolt (Aerojet) and Titan (Aerojet and United Technology Center) were propelled by engines from other California companies. Minuteman and Polaris had solid rocket motors from several companies over the years, including Aerojet and UTC, but also used motors from Thiokol and Hercules produced in that other great center of American rocketry, Utah. I believe Rocketdyne did produce some small steering rockets for the Minuteman re-entry vehicle.

5. Vandenberg AFB was named for General Hoyt Vandenberg, not Senator Arthur Vandenberg. Arthur was Hoyt's uncle.

6. Aerojet was founded in Azusa, and produced a large number of JATO rockets there, but I am not sure I would agree with Starr that Aerojet was "headquartered" there. Its corporate headquarters were those of its parent company, General Tire and Rubber of Akron, Ohio, while its largest facility was (and is) near Sacramento. General Tire also owned RKO Pictures of Hollywood and a bunch of radio and TV stations in California. (This was truly the age of the conglomerate.)

Come to think of it, this is quite a list of errors. But I'm gonna finish the book anyway.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Catching up

In my biography, they'll write, "A silence of several weeks passed unremarked, then he began blogging again."

We live in Niskayuna, New York now. Here's a picture of my boys at the local minor league ballpark:

We didn't see the game because there was a two-hour rain delay, which pushed it too late in the evening for us.

Last weekend we made an overnight trip to Boston. Great town, but it was hotter than Hades, so hot it was hard to have a good time. The coolest place in town was the Museum of Science. The "Mathematica" display by Charles and Ray Eames (of Eames Chair fame) was fantastic. I don't think I've ever seen a math section in a museum before, probably because when people decide to set one up, they take a look at Mathematica and feel like an amateur painter looking at the Mona Lisa, so they give up.

The boys enjoyed the lightning show, and the presenter did a great job. She made a point that a lot of scientists probably don't stop to think about: you can't directly observe a force. Forces are the fundamental explanation for changes in motion, yet their existence can only be inferred by observing the motion or deformation of bodies. You might think you can feel forces, but what you're feeling is the strain the force causes in your sensory organs like the nerves in your skin or the balancing apparatus in your inner ear. There's no physical principle by which a direct force-measuring device can be constructed. You need to assume an equation that relates force to something else you can measure, like the stretch of a spring.

One of my favorite parts of the museum was a sort of meta-museum section where they kept old items no longer displayed in the main museum - taxidermy, a video loop of a commercial for the museum from about 1978, and a very 1960s viscosity exhibit:

If you're not accustomed to reading psychedelic rock concert posters, those green blobs actually spell out "viscosity". Groovy, man. You're supposed to spin the thing around and observe the relative speed with which the different oils ooze down the tubes.

And in the main museum, there were plenty of these classic doohickeys:

You just hope the kid before you didn't have lice or dirty ears.

Here we are in front of a replica of the world's first liquid-fueled rocket. I think the display said it was "one of the first rockets", which is not close to the truth. Solid rockets have existed for about a thousand years. But it was the very first liquid-fueled rocket. 

On the way home, we stopped in the fancy suburb of Newton to get ice cream at J.P. Licks. (There is a dire shortage of decent ice cream parlors in the Niskayuna area, so an ice cream stop was a primary objective of the trip.) J.P. Licks had excellent ice cream but it was very pricey and there was hardly anywhere to sit. Next door was a tailor shop that had this sewing machine in the window:

My mother had this very same sewing machine when I was a kid - she may still have it for all I know.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Cleve

Spent the weekend back in Cleveland. Some kid discipline drama, but the great weather and a trip to see the Tribe play Seattle almost made up for it. You can't beat a walkoff win in extra innings. Plus, I got to go to Mitchell's -- twice!

On the flight back when the flight attendant asked the exit row passengers whether they would be willing and able to help in an emergency, some loser bag of pudding actually said no and had to be reseated. She was reasonably young and fit, totally able to do the job, just didn't want to. In fact, she bounded out of the seat with remarkable agility when the flight attendant found her somewhere else to sit.

The fact that this woman was wearing a Yankees shirt probably had nothing to do with her selfish and petty attitude, but you never know.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What's in a name?

The places in this part of New York are nice enough, but they have a public relations problem. Too many of them have awful names. Sorry, but I would never live in Duanesburg, Rotterdam, Delmar or Colonie. The Indian names, like Schenectady and Niskayuna, grate on the ears. The Dutch names have too many V's. Van Vranken? Voorheesville? Sounds like the cast of a horror film. Now, I have nothing against the Dutch, but can you name a popular aspect of Dutch culture? Wooden shoes? How about a famous Dutchman? Rembrandt? Yeah, I was going to say Niels Bohr, but he was Danish.

These towns need trendy names. It's unusual for towns to change their names, but there have been precedents. As always, California is in the lead. When Irvington, Warm Springs, Mission San Jose, Centerville and Niles got tired of being five little jerkwater towns nobody cared about, they joined up and called themselves Fremont, and 30 years later got a Macintosh plant. And even the biggest companies have changed their names. Andersen Consulting caught some backsplash from the Enron scandal so it changed to Accenture. You've never heard of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, but you've heard of Exxon.

Spanish saint names like San Diego are very trendy. Instead of Albany, how about Santa Theodora? The local columnists can call it Saint Teddy for short. True, there were never any Spanish here, but the French weren't too far away. Maybe Sainte Genevieve would be more authentic. Round Rock, Texas is booming thanks to Dell, so geographic features work as names. So let's change Schenectady to Mohawk Bend. Schenectady is a place with a crime problem. Mohawk Bend is a place whose only problem is too many McMansions. And of course, Delmar would have to become Del Mar.

Now if we can only get West Virginia on board. Big Ugly and Bear Waller Holler are two place names near my dad's birthplace that are all too real. Google is never going to build a data center in a place called Big Ugly, no matter how low the taxes are.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Math Days

It's getting trendy to celebrate Pi Day on March 14 (3/14) of every year, and in a couple of years we'll even have a couple of extra digits: 3/14/15. Then a year after that we get the rounded version, 3/14/16.

Recently we had a Fibonacci Day: 5/8/13. The Fibonacci Sequence is the sequence of numbers starting 1,1 and then each following number is the sum of the previous two: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21... Given that the first number of an American-style date can't be greater than 12, there are only six Fibonacci Days each century: 1/1/02, 1/2/03, 2/3/05, 3/5/08, 5/8/13 and 8/13/21. So we get only one more this century. If you write dates European-style (DD/MM/YY), you don't get 8/13/21, because there's no 13th month, plus four of the other five fall on different days than if you do American-style dates. For example, the second Fibonacci Day would be February 1, '03 instead of January 2, '03.

Tomorrow could be called a Pythagoras Day, because it's 5/12/13 and the three numbers satisfy the Pythagorean Theorem, i.e. square and add the first two, and you get the square of the third. In other words, the three numbers are the side lengths of a right triangle. The other Pythagoras Days are...get ready...3/4/05, 8/15/17 and 7/24/25. That's it. If you write dates European-style, you only get 3/4/05 and 5/12/13, because the second number can't exceed 12.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Called home tonight and heard chaos in the background. There are several of my younger son's best friends at the house for a sleepover and they have reached critical mass.

Drove into Schenectady after work to check out their Little Italy. It's not bad considering Schenectady is a town of just 60,000. A Westlake friend who's a Schenectady native and a relative of one of the shopowners recommended I give several of the businesses a try- which I most definitely will.

How about that Tribe? An 8-1 home stand. I am optimistic they won't suffer the late season swoons that have happened recently. I think those were a product of bad management. Manny Acta always seemed like a sharp guy in interviews but apparently he couldn't command the team's respect through the grind of a whole season.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Driving back from work today I passed a guy in an ancient Peugeot coasting slowly to a stop for no reason other than the engine had quit. Why would you drive one of those things? France is not the home of reliable automotive engineering. That's like drinking wine made in Detroit. Someone probably makes wine in Detroit, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to drink it. Peugeots remind me of one of the insults those French guys yelled from the castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a "cheesy lot of second-hand electric donkey bottom biters."

I am enjoying Skyping my boys back in Ohio. Those videophones we've been reading about since 1962 are finally here. But how many Skypes does it take before an 8-year-old gets tired of mugging for the camera? Evidently more than three.

Coming off a streak of excellent weather that I haven't seen since last autumn. But it's supposed to be raining this time tomorrow.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


First day at new job. I got a 100%-time assignment to help develop a new technology that is vital in improving the efficiency of jet engines. Which is exactly why I changed jobs, right? Yes, but moving is hard. Correction, very hard. It takes me a long time to develop routines, and for me, every time a routine is upset, it's like a pinprick. Upset every routine and that adds up to a lot of pinpricks.

Trying to develop new routines that are a small stretch from the old ones. I am picky about groceries, and the last time I moved, I used Trader Joe's as a "bridge" because they were available in both the old and new location. So I'm doing it again here. Now I've gone to Trader Joe's in three different states. As far as I know, all Trader Joes have the same products, so the only thing non-routine is the store layout. The decor for each store follows a different theme, but for some reason I'm able to tune those differences out.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Temperature inversion = refraction

On Tuesday evening, we went to Cahoon Park in Bay Village and I swear I could see the Canadian shoreline across the lake. Turns out I might have been right. A local TV station reports that due to an unusual combination of cold water and warm air, you could see all the way across Lake Erie on Wednesday. I'd heard about this some years ago; apparently the same type of event made the skyline of downtown Cleveland visible from the Canadian side. I think someone even claimed to be able to see people and cars, and to hear traffic noise (the sound waves get bent as well as the light waves), but that seems unlikely.

Apparently there are a number of mirage-type phenomena caused by unusual refraction paths due to temperature inversions. They're called looming and fata morgana, in which one or more images over the horizon appear to float above the true horizon. What I saw did appear to be separated from the horizon by a gap of sky.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Voyage to a Blue Hole

I took advantage of this fine spring day to head west in search of a blue hole. Blue hole? It's a deep spring that bubbles up from a dissolved sinkhole in the underlying limestone. Because the water comes up from deep underground, it stays the same temperature year round. It has no oxygen, so the only things that can live in it are anaerobic bacteria. Blue holes have a blue appearance because of the clarity and depth of the water.

When I was a kid, we had to take Ohio history, and the textbooks always mentioned the Blue Hole of Castalia, or as I like to call it, the BHC. The BHC appeared on those maps showing local attractions - you know, the ones that show monuments, amusement parks, museums and so on. But around 1990, the BHC disappeared into the mists of history. What happened was that the land was sold to a private fishing club and was no longer open to the public. (Why would a fishing club want a body of water that cannot support fish? More on that later.)

Well, the closure of the Blue Hole of Castalia just made me want to see it more. A web search revealed that there are in fact several blue holes in and near Castalia, and one is publicly accessible! It's on the grounds of a state fish hatchery.

They certainly do not advertise this place. It's on a country road a ways out of town, and you'd never see it unless you were looking for it. Yet, they welcome the public and even post signs as part of a self-guided tour.

Entrance to the Castalia State Fish Hatchery

The hatchery uses the blue hole as a source of cold water - apparently fish are easier to raise in cold water. They have to aerate the water so the fish can get oxygen. The hatchery is essentially just a long channel emanating from the blue hole. The channel has various weirs and screens to manage the fish, and is covered by a very long shed for part of its length. When the fish are fully grown, they're taken to rivers in tank trucks.

We're getting close now!
To hell with the office! Where's the blue hole?!

Had to walk the final couple hundred yards

Here it is. I have to say this was even more interesting than I thought it would be. Until you get right up on it, it just looks like a farm pond. But when you get close, you can see the blue sheen and the great depth. A pond has muddy banks that sort of slide off into the water. But the blue hole has nearly vertical sides made of solid rock. The Blue Hole of Castalia was said to be of unknown depth (attracts more tourists that way) but I could easily see the bottom of this blue hole. I'd say it was about 30 feet deep. I did notice a small frog jump into the water as I approached, and there was a lot of algae growing around the rim. The upper few feet of the water must have some oxygen.

A blue hole. The State of Ohio thoughtfully provided a little platform so you can get 20 feet or so out over the hole. You can barely make out the bluish cast in this photo.

Looking down into the water from the side of the platform. Don't tell me that ain't a blue hole! The green stuff is algae streaming down the side of the hole.

Outlet of the hole, conveying water to the hatchery channel

8000 gallons a minute!

This long shed covers much of the channel. A sign said this is to protect the fry from sunburn. Huh.

Sunburn protection for fish

And the payoff. I think these are trout, but I never was much of a fisherman.

So that's it. Not The Blue Hole, but a blue hole. I can see how Indians or early settlers would have been fascinated by these things, not knowing why they look so different from ordinary ponds. Probably there was some lost blue-hole-worshipping cult 5000 years ago.

After the excitement of the blue hole, I needed sustenance and ventured into downtown Castalia. Nice little quiet town. I had a fine turkey club and lemonade at the Cold Creek Cafe. The sign at the city limit advertised Castalia as the home of Cold Creek (emanates from one or more blue holes and can be seen meandering around town), which never freezes. But wouldn't you name a creek that never freezes Warm Creek?
Love the sign. Reminds me of the bumper from King of the Hill where they say a diner is "now serving sandwiches"

Castalia has a very Midwestern, flat feel that you can't find east of the Cuyahoga. In the cafe, I heard a cigarette-voiced woman on the phone to a relative, saying that mom's service would be tomorrow morning, but don't worry if you can't make it because you haven't seen her in years. Ouch! Outside, there was an electronic carillon that tinkled out an old-timey song I thought I recognized, but didn't. Heading out...what's this?

Geez, what an eyesore. Looks like the entrance to a derelict cemetery.
This is the old entrance to the original Blue Hole of Castalia, from when it was a tourist attraction. It's in pretty bad shape, and that KEEP OUT sign seems really unnecessary. It's bad enough the original Blue Hole is closed to the public, but at least the new owners could have kept the gate in decent shape.

I remark that if I'd taken a picture of everything interesting I saw on this trip, I wouldn't be home yet. But then I find a lot of stuff interesting that most people don't even notice. I did not stop to take a picture of the Slovene, Polish, Slovak and Puerto Rican clubs I saw in Lorain, or of the nun in full habit gassing up her Camry wagon in Avon, or of a number of other things.

On the way back I stopped in Berlin Heights. Here's another town, like Denville, New Jersey, that doesn't know its past. There was a historical society (not open, but they had a couple of display windows) that gave absolutely no indication that Berlin Heights was the setting of a famous essay by 19th-century humorist Artemus Ward.  Maybe they just don't want the publicity. Their neighbor a few miles south is Norwalk, home of the Norwalk virus. Not something you'd want to advertise.

Then I passed an abandoned greenhouse that has big trees growing clean through the roof. I wonder if the trees grew from seedlings that were left in the greenhouse?

Next stop: Lorain. Foolish Doings can't pass a beaten-up steel town without taking pictures. This one is beaten up, down and all around. The roads are beaten up, the houses are beaten up, the buildings are beaten up, and the people are beaten up.

This short-line railroad is still hauling coke and scrap in, and finished tube out
Here's the USS-Kobe steel mill. I count five Cowper stoves. A guy at the far end of the parking lot where I took this picture yelled something, but I couldn't tell if he was yelling at me to move on, or yelling to someone I couldn't see.

The red brick building is the office of the Republic Steel tube mill - it says "National Tube" on the arch. This plant must be over a century old. The Republic name used to be huge in Ohio, but was bought out by LTV, In fact, Republic Steel invented the triple-diamond "Steel" logo that appears on the helmets of the Pittsburgh Steelers (!) But the name is now back. I am not sure why Lorain is still such a dump. Supposedly, these tube mills are running gangbusters making pipe for the fracking boom.

This logo was gone for years