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Tom Stepleton

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December 28th, 2010

12:41 am: Esoterica
Digging around in my closet at home, I found two old ProFiles that had been inop since the late '90s. On one, the drive would not turn. I swapped its analog board into the other ProFile and presto! that one was fixed.

This small victory aside, the 27-year longevity of the ST-506 inside is probably exceptional. I have ordered parts for an IDEfile, so with luck the real McCoy can get phased out before it croaks. Also, I'll be able to copy the data off of the IDEfile and onto something that gets backed up.

I made a video.

Anyone in STL or PIT got a line on 5.25" 2S HD diskettes? Prefer unopened if possible...

November 30th, 2010

10:15 pm: A perspective that makes me glad to be a software engineer in the 2010s:
The internal controversy came to a head when a delegation of du Pont chemists led by W. F. Harrington visited Standard's Bayway plant in September, 1924. The contrast between the du Pont approach and the Standard approach was evident from the moment Harrington and his team walked through the door. They saw a large, open factory floor with three main work areas. In the first area, a large iron vessel shaped like two ice cream cones stuck top to top was rotating on its side. From within the vessel came the muffled sound of heavy explosions as sodium reacted violently with ethyl chloride and lead. As the double cone rotated, steel agitation balls churned through the boiling sodium to ensure proper mixing. When the reaction calmed down, a crane moved the double cone to the second work area, where workers unbolted the hatches over the narrow ends, releasing concentrated fumes from inside. They attached steam lines and condensers, and tetraethyl lead was distilled in much the same way that whiskey is distilled from a vat of beer.

When the distillation was over, workers opened the iron vessel once again and scraped the steaming, leftover lead mush through a grate in the floor with shovels, gloves and boots. As the mush went through the grate, workers recovered the steel balls that would be used to agitate the next batch.
From this paper on the discovery of tetraethyl lead, the lead in leaded gasoline and still a component of modern avgas.

November 24th, 2010

05:39 pm: Today I did my part to help improve Wikipedia (highlighted):

primary-sources

This is better than that time when I used the "weasel words" tag on that ferret article.

PS: Happy Thankathon everybody!

thankathon2010

November 21st, 2010

10:57 pm: Some pictures from the recent past
Here are five:Read more...Collapse )

September 1st, 2010

11:57 pm: B2010RT Day 66

Day 66

Annual haiku poetry slam at Cafe Deux Soleils on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, BC, Canada
Pittsburgh, then westbound
Sixty-six day vacation
End up in Vancouver


This is it, the last full day of the road trip. It is an uncomplicated day. I walk up and down Commercial Drive several times. When it starts to rain, I ride the wide loop of the SkyTrain's Millennium Line. I buy and ship some coffee to my mom for her birthday. The weather gets better, and by now I'm at the UBC campus. I pop down to Wreck Beach just to see it; it's deserted. Eventually I meet up with gustavolacerda for dinner; afterwards, we check out the standing-room-only haiku poetry slam pictured above. We have to peer in from outside, leaning on a patio railing; a line stretches back from the door.

No sense in sleeping much; at 2 AM I catch a bus to the airport.

Canadian Rockies from an Air Canada A320

The road trip is over, but I'm not heading home. At the Toronto airport, I meet up with Lindsay. We board a flight for St. John's, Newfoundland. Signage in the terminal seems an ominous portent:

Decapitated family on sign, St. John's International Airport, NF, Canada
They were all like this

August 20th, 2010

07:32 pm: B2010RT Day 65

Day 65

Taxidermy display, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC, Canada
SWEEEEET AAAAA-DEEEE-LIIIIIIIIIIINE

Farewell, Sentra:

Last look at my 1997 Nissan Sentra GXE, near Green Lake, Seattle, WA

Today I leave my car for good. Total road trip miles: 10,846. Farewell, and thanks.

Exiting the Puget Sound for Victoria, BC on the Victoria Clipper

The Canada-US border is the longest land border in the world, so I decided to get to Canada by boat. The 35-knot Victoria Clipper catamaran speeds you from Seattle to Victoria, BC in about 2.5 hours, all while the PA bombards you with Exciting! Travel! Offers! for your visit.

Victoria really is pretty, though:

Ferry and floatplane, Victoria, BC, Canada

A man with a Southern US accent caught me walking into the Royal BC Museum and gave me his extra ticket for free. Well, the place would have been worth twice the price! Seriously, it was pretty great. The "natural history" half had cute simulated lab tackboard displays with recent publications and research to-do lists---a nice emphasis on the process of discovery and revision that makes up working science. Oh, and taxidermy too (photo at top). The first nations history half was (in my colonizing imperialist's eyes) even better---displays of artifacts and images with accompanying text were engrossing, offering a detailed cross section of indigenous life and issues before and after European settlement. The effect of smallpox comes across especially starkly. I had to remind myself to leave the museum so that I could see the rest of the town---and outside you find the outdoor displays, of course:

Totem pole in front of big house, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC, Canada

I've always liked this Northwestern style of native North American art.

Soon afterward I found the docks where people lived in ornate floating houses:

Floating houses, Victoria, BC, Canada Floating houses, Victoria, BC, Canada

The idea is charming enough to leave me daydreaming for weeks about a floating house on the Allegheny River, despite the obvious problems of pollution and inconvenience.

The afternoon turned into the evening. I boarded an ordinary single-hulled ferry for Vancouver and enjoyed their free wi-fi.

Ferry from Victoria, BC to Vancouver, BC, Canada Drum circle at a party off of Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC, Canada

After disembarking and then a three-bus journey, I was walking down Commercial Drive with gustavolacerda to a party his friends were having---one I was assured was typical of his bohemian neighborhood. I was not disappointed. Lots of nice people there, and a freedom of conversation that I found a bit more generous than in Pittsburgh and points east. A wispy fellow asked us if we wanted to pick herbs in the garden for his vegetable soup. A drum circle was in the front room, making happy noises as the evening deepened. All in all, a very welcoming day on my first visit to western Canada.

04:44 pm: B2010RT Days 62,64

Days 62,64

[Note that the chronology has become a little bit nonlinear here. It won't get any worse. -tss]

Everything is ending. The Sentra has taken me over 10,000 miles, across the US and up to Seattle. Parts of it may not have worked all the time, but when I said go, the car always went. But then there was the corrosion and body damage, that electrical problem that never quite got figured out, the strange noise from the driver's side front that probably wasn't a glazed brake rotor, and some peculiar new behavior during starts from standstill---maybe the original clutch was showing its age. At least one friend had expressed reservations about riding in it at all. This car was not meant to return to Pittsburgh.

Although I had hoped for a more extravagant farewell (e.g. fire department Jaws of Life training---only Renton FD lacked exclusive arrangements with local junkyards, but I hadn't called them soon enough), I signed the Sentra up for donation to KUOW, the local public radio station. I would have considered their Pittsburgh equivalent if they weren't so enthusiastic for their supremely dull jazz programming---tough luck, DUQ, you could have netted a cool thirty five dollars. (Fun fact: auto donation to charity often doesn't benefit the charity as much as you might think---don't be surprised if your not-nearly-as-bad-as-the-Sentra auto gets them less than a dinner for two).

Liquidating the Sentra means doing something with everything inside it, and in this effort I have to express great gratitude to my friend Branen, who favored his house guest with multiple trips to the packaging store, among other labors. Along the way, we also drove south of SeaTac to the endearingly strange Angle Lake Cyclery, this to seek (successfully!) a shipping carton for the Brompton. Angle Lake is really a disorganized heap of a bicycle collection with all pieces for sale---pick your way through the pile and find trikes, recumbents, crank forward bikes (never heard of these before), Moultons, hand-powered bikes, you name it.

Other sights seen: RE-PC, with its dark and deep "AS IS" section, and Volunteer Park, whose pleasant conservatory has surprisingly managed to avoid the Chihuly virus infecting botanical gardens around the world.

In the end, everything was successfully shipped, recycled, or disposed of. Thanks again, Branen---I owe you big time.

03:45 pm: B2010RT Day 63

Day 63

Hoary Marmot at St. Elmo Pass, Mount Rainier National Park, WA
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

An eventful day of hiking with Marc (c.f. beeeer?) at Mount Rainier National Park. Let's start off with the pictures telling the story---you can follow along with the park map:

Mount Rainier from the Glacier Basin Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

We arrived early and set off on the Glacier Basin Trail, accessible from the White River campground on the east side of the park.

View from beyond the Glacier Basin Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

At a primitive campground at the end of the maintained trail, we found a ranger. We learned that the path went on from there, the beginning of a route all the way up to the top of Rainier. As an ambitious day hike, she recommended St. Elmo's Pass, visible above as the bowl-shaped notch slightly left of center. We crossed an alpine meadow, then hiked up a steep, sandy ridge next to a melting snow field.

Marc walks across snow field near Inter Glacier, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

Further up we crossed the snow field...

View down Inter Fork valley, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

...and began a difficult scramble up a steep field of loose stones.

Mount Rainier View from St. Elmo Pass, Mount Rainier National Park, WA Marc at St. Elmo Pass, Mount Rainier National Park, WA
St. Elmo Pass panorama, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

At last we made it to the pass, which featured steep drop-offs and rugged rocky outcrops. We had climbed a little over 3,000 feet. One outcrop was especially good for "mountain man" style photographs:

Marc at St. Elmo Pass, Mount Rainier National Park, WA Your correspondent at St. Elmo Pass, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

Marc's packed lunch gave us some time to take in the scenery. At around 7,500 feet, St. Elmo Pass isn't especially high compared with other road trip locations: the floor of the Great Amphitheater at Bryce Canyon has about the same elevation. No matter, we were above treeline, gazing out onto glaciers, and the air was a lot thinner than it was in Seattle. One feels they are On A Mountain here.

Surprisingly, there was little or no wind at the pass, and before long we started hearing the mountain changing. When a cracking sounded distantly across the glacier, we turned to see a boulder the size of a washing machine crumble from a high cliff and cartwheel down the ice and snow, smashing through snow banks and leaping over gullies. It is rare to see an object gain and deal out uncontrolled destructive power like this, and Mark and I were spellbound. When the boulder tumbled to a stop in the basin, we started breathing again.

We heard other signs of movement on the larger glacier west of the pass, but saw nothing. Eventually, the marmot in the first photo ambled by (marmots in the park are fearless of people) and climbed a small prominence about thirty feet away, then set to making a lordly shriek every few minutes.

After a while we headed back down---it was just as difficult as the ascent---and with the better part of an afternoon left we decided to hike up to the Mount Fremont fire lookout tower from the Sunrise Visitor Center.

Mount Rainier view from Mount Fremont Lookout trail, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

We walked along a ridgetop with a fine view of Rainier. Overhead, a small airplane of the Cherokee variety banked westward over a grassy meadow, flew on for a few moments, and... the engine quit. After a few tense seconds, it started up briefly and then quit again.

"Oh, he's f***ed" was my dreading remark. There were not many places to land a Cherokee nearby. The meadow if you could lose the altitude and line up without hitting the mountain; otherwise trees and talus---survivability would be a coin toss. With the NTSB in mind, I reached for my camera, and the engine started again, this time for good. We made it to the lookout after that without incident:

Mount Fremont Lookout, Mount Rainier National Park, WA

We drove home afterwards---a great day outdoors. Dinner, and beeeeer.

01:10 pm: B2010RT Day 61

Day 61

My 1997 Nissan Sentra on the Kingston Ferry, bound for Kingston, WA
This placement means you missed the last ferry by about a minute

[The road trip has been over for about two days now. The next series of posts will attempt to catch up with all of those final days I never got around to blogging. Today's post will be pretty short. -tss, 8/20/2010]

Today I drove out to Port Townsend to see if I could meet with an old acquaintance of my aunt's. I hadn't made arrangements beforehand, so it was surprising that Jim Moore could drop what he was doing for lunch in town. Jim is one of a few major producers of tools for glassblowing in the world---the other big name works in the Italian glassblowing capital of Murano.

I told him and his wife over the phone that Lindsay was a glassblower. When we met, he gave me a gift for her: a pair of straight shears:

Glassblowing shears by Jim Moore of Port Townsend, WA

Jim used to live in Seattle, and back then he got a lot more visitors. Things are a lot quieter on the Olympic Peninsula, at least as long as you're not in Forks...

August 10th, 2010

05:11 am: B2010RT Day 60

Day 60

ESS informational display, Museum of Communcations, Seattle, WA
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS "LOVE"

The Museum of Communications in Seattle is one of those delightful "collection" museums built for nerds, by nerds. Comprising two floors of telephony hardware from the last 120 years, the Museum has, in contrast to (e.g.) a car museum, no intrinsic visual appeal to fall back on. Neither is it the case that we public are obliged to appreciate the display items---in this way it differs from an art museum. There is no ulterior enjoyment for the trifler, the peruser, the museum grazer. If you are in Qwest's Duwamish Central Office on a Tuesday, you are Interested In Phones, or you are stupendously bored.

I... wasn't bored.

By sharing an actual phone company central office with actual, modern switching equipment, the MoC has all the conveniences necessary for the installation and operation of obsolete hardware. Take this panel switch, first installed in Rainier Valley in 1923 or so:

Panel Switching System, Museum of Communications, Seattle, WA

Ask and a museum volunteer will start stuffing heavy-duty fuses into the panel switch machinery. The switch is electromechanical, and with each new fuse, another motorized shaft begins to turn steadily within the frames. When calls are made, clutches engage the shafts, and vertical rods slide up and down, moving brushes that establish the necessary electrical connections. The volunteer demonstrates this as he makes a phone call... to you, standing about six feet away.

The museum is full of this kind of not-so-tele communication, particularly on a second floor containing a variety of phones scavenged mostly from businesses. If you were like me, whenever you went to the principal's office in elementary school (strictly to collect awards for good attendance), you always glanced toward the secretary's desk at that special big phone with such a vast and impressive array of the buttons on it. At last, at the Museum of Communications, you may captain this instrument. You can call an old-timey candlestick-shaped phone, a store display Princess model the size of a refrigerator, any number of Model 500s, or an authentic British payphone in the red, cast-iron call box. Among others. All phones are within twenty feet of each other, and the calls all go through the museum's enormous #5 crossbar:

Number Five Crossbar Switching System, Museum of Communications, Seattle, WA Number Five Crossbar Switching System, Museum of Communications, Seattle, WA

which is a bit like busing a second grade class to school on the Queen Mary. This is so exactly the kind of thing that phone geeks would do if they got their own space in the Duwamish Central Office. They would also maintain collections of teletypes, ham radio gear, manuals, old AT&T computers and workstations, and phone company memorabilia.

Audichron talking clock, Museum of Communications, Seattle, WA Teletype Model 28 KSR, Museum of Communications, Seattle, WA Shell pay phone, Museum of Communications, Seattle, WA
AT&T personal computers and workstations, Museum of Communications, Seattle, WA

I salute you, geeks! Keep the fire burning.

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