Culture, Media, Science

Tip-a-Tip-a-Tap-Tap-Tap-Ching

Typewriters deliver a physical honesty.  No spellcheck!

My 8-year-old grandson cautioned me that to write important stuff in an email for posterity was not a very good idea.   “It’s technology'” he explained, and pointed out, “it’ll get lost really fast.”

After 40 years in the writing, printing and mailing business, I experienced a moment of happy vindication.

He made a good point. Despite the pervasive and indelible nature of social media, unless you know what you are looking for, ten years later, that little nugget of an email is crystallizing somewhere in a cloud far away, never again to fall to earth.

I have spent most of this summer reading hundreds of hand-written letters dated between 1943 to 1947. These nearly daily journals record my mother’s life in England as the war was finally won, and reconstruction had begun.

Mom’s letters to her dad 1944-1947.

It is a safe bet that had the stories been written as emails, they would never have resurfaced. But these did, unbidden, and made for an arresting and revealing read.

They appeared in a box from her estate, neatly tied together with a shoelace. The bundles were collected and saved by her father, in New York. No internet cloud at work here.   But without doubt, their physical presence could not be ignored; they had to be saved, and they were.  As a result, her story was available to be read, 70 years later. I’ll share more on that another time.

The workhorse 1915 Underwood–engineering marvel.

Along with the letters, I also inherited her Underwood typewriter. As a child I recall working this machine, struggling with its keyboard, stumbling through sentences like a child inebriate, unable to find the right letters, the right case, the right push.

Last year I purchased some new ribbon to replace the one that was now leathery dry. The new reels came from England.

Today I installed the ribbon. It’s black and red, and very, very fresh.

Changing a ribbon: lost on today’s digerati

The Underwood is about 100 years old, and is an elegant, and beautifully engineered piece of machinery. It is built on a solid black cast iron base, and probably has about 500 moving parts, all in perfect working order. A priceless possession.

The Underwood’s engineering was as intricate as a Swiss watch…or a steam locomotive.

The QWERTY keyboard is easier to manage now, after a career of hammering away on computers. But there are some niceties, too. An exclamation mark (!) is accomplished by striking the apostrophe (‘) key over the 8 key. Back space, and drop in a period. Voila!

Wordwrap had not yet been conceived, let alone invented, so there is the iconic bell to warn that the margin is in sight. Better than that, there is NO spellcheck. What you type is what you get. The typewriter  has a physical honesty about it that today’s word processors cover up like embarrassed parents viewing a child’s essays.

Dad’s portable Corona was the picture of efficiency

At the same time I acquired the Underwood, I also received my father’s Corona portable. It comes in a cardboard leatherette case, tied together with a length of electrical cord. This machine is remarkably lighter, only 10 pounds.

The 1914 Corona flipped open to reveal a tiny keyboard

Opening the 100-year-old container, I discovered that the upper half of the machine, ribbons and all, flips over revealing a modest set of keys. These are faithful to QWERTY, but there is special efficiency in the Corona. The actual slugs have 3 different characters each. An informed operator can do upper case, lower case and special figures off of the small keyboard.  My father wrote his doctoral thesis on this relic.

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Three characters for every slug, a clever design.

Again, I marvel at the care and diligence of the engineers who designed these machines. They are quite exquisite pieces of working technology.

I recently read a book entitled, “The Iron Whim – A Fragmented History of Typewriting“, by Darren Wershler-Henry. This Canadian author has assembled a fascinating thesis about the role of typewriters in our culture. After our 30+ years of PCs and laptops and smartphones, his book is a brilliant perspective on how we have developed.  You think it’s just about stenos and typing pools?  Get the book.

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The #5 Underwood, 25 pounds of literary punch 

And then there’s Tom Hanks and John Mayer, who have just concluded a documentary “California Typewriter“.  They too are quick to tell you about the beauty of typewriters, especially as Hanks says– his typewritten messages “can never be hacked by the forces of evil.”  Apparently Hanks also has a book in the works, featuring three stories involving typewriters.  He has time on his hands?

So, returning to the advice of my grandson, I will continue to use my laptop, and thumb my way through the iPhone keyboard, but I am much more respectful of his intuition on these things.

Hard copy doesn’t go away, and especially in the long run, is probably easier to find.

 

Post Script: October 26–I just finished Hanks’ new book, “Uncommon Type”, a series of short stories written by the actor.  A great read!

 

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Economics, Environment, Government, Science

There’s No Hot Water

Shower

Shower time: the best moment of the day.

Thankfully, the EPA is taking a closer look at us in the shower.

It turns out that the Environmental Protection Agency has made the important decision to fund the University of Tulsa, which will study the showering practices of America’s hotel guests from sea to shining sea.

Boarding house lineup

“There’s an alarm clock in the sink. Hit it when you’re out.”

Their goal is to develop an app which will monitor our shower usage when we are nipping out to the local hotel for a relaxing sojourn in the tub.

According to U of T, hotel guests are using in excess of 17 gallons of water for a shower. Their proposal: we should limit the wash to 15.5 gallons.

Basically, cut a minute off the most important moment of the day.

"You're kidding me.  I just got here!"

“Already? And you want a tip?”

They report this is easily accomplished by turning off the shower while we are lathering.

Tulsa engineers suggest we can further reduce wasted water by taking “navy showers”, i.e.. freezing buck naked in the stall waiting for warm water.

accounting

“You know, this could run into money!”

Apparently, the U of T engineers are working on an app that will monitor shower water usage by room, and transmit the data, real time, to the hotel’s accounting department.  The proposed objective here is to modify guests’ shower behavior.

May we also suggest more group showers?   It used to be that Mrs. Jones’ boarding house filled the tub once, and from there, we all lined up for a dunk like kids.

"Not a chance.  I just got here."

“Not a chance. I just got here.”

Wisely, the U of T engineers have not proposed twosomes to save water, as the likelihood of less shower time is imaginatively remote.

There is a logical extension in the offing, and that is to enlist the services of outside peer-scoring agencies like the renowned OPower company which has quite successfully modified electrical and natural gas usage.

"With all due respect, your numbers suck, big time."

OPower: “We suggest you skip the conditioner.”

Using meter readings from over 60 million households nationwide OPower has delivered energy savings pushing 5% and more, while simultaneously improving utility company satisfaction ratings.

OPower’s reports provide comparative peer group scores, and also offer energy saving tips to the consumer.

Cowbiy Tub

“Time’s up Jarrod. Ranch boys are lined up waiting’ on ya.”

We can see this as a no-brainer in the hospitality industry, where consumers can receive regular reports on their shower usage at the local hotel, or the inn down the road in the next town.

After a few report rotations it would be no surprise if shower usage shrank considerably.

No doubt, the hotel’s satisfaction ratings will skyrocket too.

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Environment, Science

Something’s Rotten in Seattle

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Spreading good everywhere.

The farmer and his son are driving down a country road on a warm spring morning.   In the air is the unmistakeable bouquet of fresh manure, wafting up from a newly treated acre just upwind.  “Smell that son?” asked the man as he leaned his head out the window, “That’s profits!”

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Gogo and Wembly consult Marjory on composting, Fraggle Rock.

Compost is one of nature’s small gifts to those of us who wish to take it.  Bagging up potato peels.   Separating lemon rinds from swizzle sticks.  Throwing eggshells and coffee grounds into a bucket under the sink.

And any kid has to wonder, “when are they going to ask me to take that outside?”

The Korsts, a Dallas, Oregon couple composted their entire consumable garbage for a year after removing all recyclables.  Turns out their actual “garbage” filled a shoebox.   For a year!  Meanwhile the compost heap quietly bubbled and burped in their back yard.  No newscast has yet reported that they have gone missing while detectives are following up some promising leads next to the tomato rows.  But we wait to see.

Today, composting is de rigeur.  Ask the virtuous and self-denying citizens of Seattle who just this week accepted a composting by-law.   Simply stated, compost-eligible items may not exceed 10% of their weekly garbage pick-up.  In other words, “if it rots, keep it.”

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Seattle City Council hash it out.

The city council opened up this can of worms in July with city ordinance 124313.  It requires the frugal and resourceful residents  to reduce recyclable contents in landfill garbage to less than 10%.

Two months later, still not satisfied with the purity of their garbage, city council expanded the 10% cap to compostable matter.  From now on, that leftover duck a l’orange goes under the Spiraea bush in the back yard.

The motive behind this cleansing is to reduce landfill waste.   It turns out that Seattle was shipping 300,000 tons of garbage to a site in eastern Oregon annually.   Remember the Korsts?

bags

Bags to go: we love ’em but we hate ’em.

Today consumers are whipsawed by legislation over garbage.   In the east, Torontonians are thrilled that the 5-cent tax on grocery bags has been rescinded by city council.

In this instance, the “single-use” plastic bag definition ran into a legal shredder.   Lawyers argued that once home, using the flimsy bag to hold garbage was a multiple use, and therefore acceptable.

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The sweet smell of success!

You may remember Toronto has had its share of political low days.   One of its good days is the 2010 cessation of trucking over a million tons of garbage to a Michigan landfill site every year.

And farther north, in Ottawa, the citizenry of Canada’s capital were presented with a training video for folding their newspapers.  Why?   To line their wet garbage bin.

Which brings me to my main interest: the business of composting.   In my world, if it’s vegetable, it’s compostable and… it’s profitable.

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Modest contributions: raw materials.

To that end, I happily walk broccoli stems, corn husks and wilted flowers out to a pile in the side yard that is the resting place for last year’s Jack ‘o’ Lantern, the weekly grass clippings, and all of the neighborhood’s fallen leaves.

Within this melange of produce there hustles a busy community of worms, sow bugs and centipedes.  They are quietly chomping, digesting and extruding high grade fertilizer.   Behind them, a trail of microbes are further breaking the matter down to its fundamental parts.

Canadian Nightcrawler

A hard, loyal worker. His rings indicate seniority.

While they seemingly toil without cease, I have learned that the earthworm follows regular hours.   A New York State College environmental paper reveals that it takes 8 hours for a worm to digest a meal, head-to-toe as it were.   And the output?  Anywhere from 2%-44% of its weight.

The scientists who made this finding also report that the optimum population density for earthworms is about 8 one-ouncers per cubic meter.   I know that my compost heap does much better than that.   Judging by the cafeteria lineups, I have a high density worm farm in operation.  Don’t tell PETA.

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Rich, dark goodure.

The compost pile delivers the richest, loamy soil every spring and fall.   In the spring, I transport bushels of the black mulch to our garden.  There, it caps the ground, surrounds the new flowers, stifles the weeds and holds the water.

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Compost delivers!

In the summer, I used another 20 bushels of compost to plant 11 rose bushes.   They are bursting in bloom continuously.

In the fall, I’ll dump another load of compost to cover over the roses and the mums, keeping them insulated until next spring.

Total cost: zero.

My hat is off to the noble and frugal citizenry of Seattle.

May you succeed in retaining all your garbage, with thanks to the folks in eastern Oregon.

 

 

 

Thanks for reading!   You can “like” this on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr.   Be social and share!

 

 

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Science

Upside Down!

This new year is presenting some stunning, seemingly unrelated discoveries.

swamp-water-os-smallStunner #1: A group of soaking wet, grass-stained Department of Energy scientists in Richland, WA  have developed a process for making crude oil out of algae.  You might want to check your pool for recent intruders.    The goop is subjected to heat and pressure, much like the original process, but without the time lapse of 1,000,000 years.

This is microwave designed for oil barons.   The result is black gold–Texas Tea as the song goes.   Environmentalists: be on the lookout as the swamp in your backyard is in jeopardy.

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Stunner #2:  Those intrepid researchers at the University of Tokyo have just announced that they can levitate objects using sound waves.   This is a bit lame as my parents advised our noise had been raising the dead for years.    Apparently the scientists have been able to grasp objects–no doubt with the high parts of Old Man River–and suspend them in midair.

This is a huge advance for Obamacare where you can be put on hold forever.   While the scientists optimistically intend to create high speed rail-free commuter transport, riders will have to agree on musical choices and cell phone usage.

levitation

Stunner #3:    Invisibility cloaking is everywhere.  Not that you would notice.   I don’t know where to start, but clearly, transparency is the key word in science today.   This is good, because it has a long way to go in politics.   Researchers at universities worldwide are clamoring to publish their latest wave manipulation breakthroughs in the world of disappearance.

So was it The Hobbit, or Harry Potter that propelled a legion of millennials to perfect the science of absence?  This runs against the advice of Woody Allen, once credited with the observation that “90% of success is just showing up.”

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Stunner #4:   And this, straight out of the Czech University of Life Sciences– researchers have established that dogs relieve themselves in line with the earth’s magnetic fields.   After 7,475 individual observations of the cumulative works of 70 dogs over two years, this dedicated team proclaims that dogs line up north-south before letting go.   If you are lost, no more need to look up at the stars.   Better to look down at your feet.

Stunner #5:   The Sun’s magnetic field is changing.   It changes north to south, apparently.   This was announced just before Christmas by Stanford University.   Physicists at the Wilcox Observatory say this happens every 11 years or so, but that we should expect to see no changes here on earth.   To be sure, you might ask your dog.

polar

Stunner #6:   The Polar Vortex has swallowed North America, we think.   It could actually be South America, but that will require verification by our teams at Czech University and Stanford.  In the mean time, it is very cold.   Though it is never too cold for flag pole testing.   These are happy days for the professional weather forecasters who have been searching for news, and now they have it.

A sad note: while we are transfixed under a polar icecap that reaches down to Albuquerque there are two icebreakers imprisoned in a sea of ice at what used to be the South Pole (see #5 above) .   They are attempting to rescue stranded global warming researchers who, last observed, were eating canned beans waiting for a ride to Australia.

If you have any observations of your own respecting these recent discoveries, let me know.   Are they inter-connected? Mean time, feel free to share this with your friends.  They deserve to know!

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Science

Right On The Money

It’s tough keeping up with the Bank of Canada.   First, they killed the dollar and gave us the Loonie.   Then they snuffed the two dollar bill, and gave us the “Toonie”.   Last spring the penny was thrown under the bus.   Now they are printing rubber money.

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Counterfeiters are shaking their engraving tools in high dudgeon as shiny, new polymer-based bills are flooding the market.   Now, chemical manufacturers like DuPont are trying their hand at the dark art of making dough.

The new bills are a sandwich of tin foil, gum wrapper, scotch tape, plastic and bumpy print.   Perfect for vending machines.   I have studied these  $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills that pad the pockets of millions of unwitting but happy Canadian consumers.   Here’s what you need to know to stay in the money:

1.   They aren’t rubber.   They are biaxially oriented polypropylene sheets.   This radical development stops many counterfeiters.   If youse can’t say it, youse ain’t making it.

2.   They are water resistant.   That is, you can easily wash them.

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This is especially helpful in the cash and carry business where laundering money has always been challenging.   Incidentally, in a spirit of helpfulness, the Bank’s website provides instructions on cleaning blood off of currency.

3.   They are printed with metameric inks.   Of course, that means that their colors change under different types of light.   Under certain lights, like neon, they may disappear completely.

4.   They are durable.   Lab testing determined the bills are good to use in temperature ranges of -75’C to +140’C (-103’F to 284’F) so you can take them to the Moon.   Mars is iffy (cold) and Venus is out (blazing hot).

5.    They are environmentally friendly.   You can recycle these bills.   Do not throw them into your wet garbage.

6.    They float.   In the unlikely event of a water landing, you may clutch your wallet or handbag with the full faith and confidence that the Bank will keep your head above water.  A standard suitcase full of 100’s will support you comfortably.

runes

7.    Security: they have secret codes.   You can only see these codes if you are a Hobbit or are familiar with ancient runes.   Safety warning: the Bank’s website cautions against holding the bill up to the sun or a laser light to find the codes as your eye will turn into a molten glob of cheese.

Polymer bank notes have progressed through years of development.   An early version was created by Dupont.   But, a rookie error:  the ink smudged so badly that the banks said “maybe you can line your bathroom walls with it, but not our pockets.”

So taking the hint, Dupont decided to cut their losses, tossed in their hand and took their product home.

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They named it Tyvek.

Thanks for reading!   If you liked this let me know, and by all means, feel free to share it.  I’d like that too!

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Science

Stringing Me Along

twinkle lightsNo doubt you have your lights up.   The annual ritual of hanging Christmas lights started about seven minutes after Master Bradford cleaned the last buffalo wing off the Thanksgiving plate in New Plimouth, in 1621.   Since that very day we, as a reasoning people, have been asking ourselves why we get sucked into buying more of those little twinkle lights every year.

These insidious strings have over 100 small, incandescent bulbs stuck in little sockets like poison darts.   At the store they appear smartly  packaged in plastic frames, efficiently coiling 25 feet of 3-ply electrical cord.   The bulbs are lined up like little glass medical phials, waiting to be plucked from their beds.   There is even a bonus packet containing a blinker bulb which, when engaged, turns the whole string into a tawdry window display for an all night pizza stand.

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And the price for this residential street weapon: dirt cheap.    So it’s not hard to throw a couple more strings into the shopping cart during the weekly trip to ACE Hardware.   The rationale behind the purchase is that this year we are really going to show that supercilious twit across the street how we can tart up our roof gutters, window frames, mail box and chimney wreath better than him any day, hands down.

Which gets to the nut of the problem.   Once the tangle of a thousand lights has been festooned across every stationary object on our front yard including the lawnmower, we turn on the power.   Just like the movies, three strings don’t fully light.   150 bulbs are freezing dead black, at the top of the crabapple, and wrapped in and around a downspout.

string of lights

They worked fine when we tested them in the garage.  The act of hanging however has a terminal effect   I’m sorry–  I can’t begin to explain this many-layered pun to you.

It is the conundrum I repeatedly face: how can a civilized and sophisticated species like ours invent machinery that can create such elegant packaging, but can’t get the blinking (sorry) lights to work??

Christmas Lights

Anyway, moments before the recycling truck came rumbling down our street yesterday, I salvaged the three “dead” strings from the bin, and took them back to the basement.    I threw them onto the workbench like a bushel of seaweed–  this green tangle of plastic, copper and glass spikes.   I plugged in a set, and fingered down the glowing string until I came to the block of 50 dead lights.

Then I did something radical, and unwittingly logical.   Unplugging the string, I cut the dead block of lights off with my pliers.   Plugged the string back in, and the first 50 bulbs lit up, with no spray of sparks or numbing jolt up my arm through the back of my head.    Encouraged, I cut the the other two strings, and smiled at my thriftiness.   I had three strings of lights, shorter, but working.

Getting braver, I wondered if I could save the three dead strings too.   A little more tricky, I attached a new plug to one of  the severed strings.   Flying on one wing now;  metaphorically, driving 60 miles an hour into a fog bank.    I plug this string into the wall, but the lights don’t go on.   In fact, all the lights go out.   Not on the string, but in the house.

Uh-oh.

I am pretty sure that the circuit breaker in the darkest part of the basement hiding behind a curtain of cobwebs will be switched off, and if I am quick, I can get it back on.    This is not the problem.   The real challenge is to re-set the clocks:  the stove clock, the microwave clock, the alarm clock and then endure a 7-minute blackout on the TV waiting for our beloved cable company to resume its flow of NCIS re-runs.   And then–  to reset my ears.   They have been pinned by my better half, the lady who grudgingly allows me not quite enough rope to hang myself on a daily basis.

This year, I am going to let “Sparky” across the street have his moment in the glow of 18,000 lights.   With any luck, the electric company will make him a “preferred customer”, and send him to Niagara Falls to take notes.

Mean time, I am going to ACE.

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Science

Lightning Striking Again

lou-christie Do you think maybe a Lou Christie tune plays in your head all day because a renegade programmer at Amazon is beaming music directly into your brain?  No, I didn’t think so either.   Still, it does support the idea of direct human downloading: no more messy Paypal signups, MP3 conversions and ear buds.   Unfortunately, my brain only plays vinyl, and on a ’70s  turntable.  And cassettes.   So I will need new headware.

Brain_WavesJust in a nick of time however there is a stunning development in the exciting world of microwave technology.    Those irrepressible engineers at Duke University have invented a “power harvester”.    Not to be confused with the all new Swiffer Steamboost, their device actually sweeps up lost and mis-directed microwaves and turns them into useful electricity.   Science alert– we are surrounded, perpetually smothered, in a cloud of energy waves which are whipping around us like angry fetuccine, bouncing off furniture and walls, looking for something soft to stick to.

Energy Capturing Gizmo

Duke’s energy capturing gizmo

It turns out that Duke’s “meta-materials” absorb microwaves faster than ranch dressing on a new tie.   So all that wasted energy– whole zettawatts  of British football crowds, lawyer commercials, deer whistles, Neil Diamond songs, tax returns, trees falling in the woods– can be packed up in sparky voltage to power necessary devices like power tooth brushes and Twitter.

This is a bonus development of quantum proportions.   Until now, we had to collect electricity the old fashioned way, rubbing our shoes across a plush broadloom to carefully dispense with a finger touch on our little sister’s neck.  Until now, electricity poured out of the wall sockets into invisible pools that Grandma’s cat rolled in before zapping her with a nose-kiss.

Ghostbusters-15And of course it has military significance.   Not only does the device collect electricity, but it can transmit it too.  It can zap.   See that bug on the wall?  Cinders.

If you ever had any doubts about the prescience of Ghostbusters, rest assured, the Dukesters are working on a strategic capability as you are reading this.

kiss-2009I am sure you are thinking “wireless Taser cannons”.  But no, it’s far more formidable, and on a galactic level.    Before long, they will be sweeping up enough subway announcements, Honey Boo Boo ads and congressional filibusters to beam the entire KISS video anthology to Andromeda, thereby warding off potential invaders.

In the mean time, preparation is the key priority.    As for me, the tunes just keep on coming, so I have ordered Google Glass.

Which I will hook up to my VCR.

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