Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Moral Lessons of Carpentry

Some lessons are best understood physically ...

Long ago I acquired a simple set of bookshelves. Why? Because back then the only available book formats were "hard" or "soft," not digital, so those of us who read were constantly filling up our living space with hundreds of examples of both, and always running out of space to store them. OK, my house is still like that, but I can see my physical books beginning to follow my music collection into the cloud.

At the time I considered these shelves cheap and nearly disposable. They were plain, unfinished pine boards, carelessly joined together, with a back of thin plywood. But compared to furnishings available now they are a masterpiece of fine cabinetry. Don't talk to me about Ikea. Just try to find something that is actually solid wood, not particle board covered in plastic. And if the backing isn't Masonite it will be even less substantial cardboard -- with a wood-grain paper face. Not wood, but a picture of wood. By contrast these pine shelves were actually joined using grooves cut in the side pieces, not those annoying little metal studs that seem to be universal now.

Moral Lesson No. 1: You don't know what you've got until time has gone by.

I coated the bare wood with a couple of coats of urethane varnish, and made a fateful decision to improve the attachment of the plywood back piece. Why fateful? Read on. I wasn't happy with the way it had been stuck on with staples. It was loose in places and felt flimsy. So I added some carpenters glue and additional nails to make it more solid.

For years the resulting piece served me faithfully, supporting the hefty weight of some portion of my library. The collection grew to occupy several additional bookcases until finally, because it no longer matched the decor, my lowly pine shelves were banished to the pantry and the more menial duty of supporting the bric-a-brac of contemporary kitchens -- chopping and mixing appliances, crock pots, garbage bags and the like.

Also on the shelves were some hurricane supplies, including (until recently) four gallon containers of water. It turns out these cheap polyethylene jugs are not really designed for long term storage. Having survived unneeded through one hurricane season, they were still standing by when one of them sprung a leak. The resulting small flood -- it's remarkable how much larger a gallon looks when spread flat over a large area -- soaked the bottom of the shelves and whatever items had been stored lower down.

Moral Lesson No. 2: Always do disaster planning.

So Saturday found me out back with the empty shelves on a table before me, attempting to remove that thin plywood from the back, the lower portion of which had now de-laminated due to what we might call "excess humidity." In short, I had lived to regret my attempts to attach it more securely. The wood wanted to peel away from itself rather than what it was glued onto, and the nails were harder to remove than the staples. What might have been a simple task became a matter for a hammer and wood chisel, followed by rasps to remove the residue of wood fibers and glue.

As I worked, in the back of my mind I heard a voice that I wished had been there at the beginning. You don't want to attach that so permanently, this experienced old carpenter would have counseled me. Those staples are there so when the day comes you want to remove or replace it, it will just pop right off. But that guy wasn't there when I needed him.

Moral Lesson No. 3: Plan for the future, because that day will come.

Once I had an entirely opposite, more cheerful carpentry experience. It happened when a friend gave me this wonderful old radio from the 1930s. No, it didn't work. Many years ago it had suffered some catastrophic component failure with the result that a transformer inside it had melted all over the chassis. It used vacuum tubes, of course, and most of them were missing, with an extremely low probability of being able to be replaced.

I decided it would make a great speaker cabinet. In spite of the symmetrical cabinet design it had only a single speaker on one side (with a torn cone), but with the innards out of the way there was plenty of room to mount two of them for stereo. I picked up a couple of 5-inch full range car speakers from Radio Shack and prepared to mount them.

The side that already had a speaker was easy. All I had to do was unscrew the old one from the piece of plywood it was attached to, then screw in the new one. But the plywood on the other side was solid because there had never been a speaker there. No big deal, I just had to unscrew the plywood (note that it was not GLUED in place) and cut an opening in it.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the other side of the plywood was already marked in pencil for the cutout! We can only assume that it was easier to tell some helper in the factory to mark all the wood pieces, but then to only cut the ones that would have speakers attached. Maybe there was a deluxe model of the same radio that did have speakers on both sides. That would certainly be in line with American patterns of efficiency and consumer marketing. Or maybe the guy in the factory just figured that some hobbyist might want to add another speaker some day, not even imagining such a thing as "stereo" sound.

At any rate I experienced the great joy of applying my coping saw and following the outline that had been drawn on the wood for me by a nameless craftsman over 60 years in the past, someone who really and truly planned ahead. It just doesn't get any better than that.

And by the way, you wouldn't believe the sound that comes out of this simple unsealed enclosure. With the speakers pointing in opposite directions the sound reflects off the walls in a spacious and non-localized way, while the central location acts like a center channel speaker to fill in the gap between left and right. Maybe those guys back in the '30s knew something about acoustics, too.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Great 20th Century Nuclear War

You mean you didn't know about it?

If you are old enough to have lived through some portion of the last century, as I did, you might be saying to yourself, well, at least we never blew ourselves up. Indeed, after the decades-long threat of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, it does come as something of a relief to know that the conflict finally ended without ever reaching that final cataclysm. It is commonly said that we only ever fought the Soviet Union "by proxy," when smaller conventional wars were waged in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But conventional wisdom is wrong. A nuclear war did take place in those years, with thousands of nuclear detonations -- enough to have eradicated every major city in the world, along with most of the smaller ones. What's that? You say you didn't notice? Well, that's probably because it happened over such a long period of time. And instead of dropping them on enemy cities we mostly blew them up in our own back yards, or in the neutral territory of the Pacific Ocean where it was supposed that they would be relatively harmless.

I'm speaking of course about the testing programs that were carried out by every country that developed "the Bomb." The appalling scale of these tests (and I can't write the word without hearing in my mind the repetition by the Emergency Broadcast System, "this is only a test") is rendered abundantly clear in this short video by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto. 

On a map of the world, he has animated a time lapse of all the nuclear bombs exploded from 1945 in New Mexico, through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then everywhere else, up to 1998. The image is compelling, as are the statistics. 2,054 explosions conducted by seven countires. Over half of them by the United States, and a huge percentage of those on our own soil. (Hint: you might want to steer clear of Nevada for the next few thousand years.) Russia came in second, of course. Want to guess who's number three? If you said China, bzzt, you're wrong. The correct answer is France.

Be sure to stick with the video to the end. The true cumulative effect does not become clear until the last minute when a recap is done one country at a time and you can sense the scale of what happened. It startled me to note that the Soviet Union appears to have trashed itself from one end to the other.

At some point, treaties reigned in the madness somewhat by dictating that tests had to be done underground in order to contain the radiation and the spread of fallout. As imperfect as that may be (what about groundwater, for example?) it's a far cry from the early 1950s when open air tests were viewed from a distance like spectator sports, and the Today Show and the daily newspaper displayed maps projecting where all the strontium-90 was likely to land. It may have gone boom in the far West, but the cloud carried across the Midwest to New England and beyond, tainting the grass to be eaten by our dairy cows and milk to be fed to our children.

It didn't matter that people like Albert Einstein read statements on TV declaring that an untold number of future deaths and cancers would be the result, visited upon us for decades and perhaps centuries to come. Government spokespeople insisted the radiation levels were "safe" and that the test were necessary for the national defense. Anyone feel safe yet?

I watched the video with my grandson and explained about all that had happened back then. His jaw literally dropped in righteous indignation. And well it might. He's a millennial baby, born after the Great Nuclear War had ended. But that stuff is still in the air and the water and the earth where we grow our food. What were we thinking?

We know now that there is no safe level of exposure to radioactive materials. Even a microscopic speck of plutonium lodged in your lung continues to irradiate the tissue around it, producing a constant threat of genetic damage. Look how concerned we were about the nuclear meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukashima. Those things pale in comparison with what we deliberately did to our earth and air in the name of security.

And before we go, let's recall that thousands more of these weapons are still sleeping in their silos and submarines, ready to spring into action at a few minutes notice. Wasn't one nuclear war enough? Do we really have to prepare for another one?

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Small vs. Fast

The smaller it gets, the faster it goes ... the faster it goes, the smaller it gets ...

I had a small epiphany recently while watching the apps on my phone download and update themselves. Of course it's not necessary to watch, but I have to. Long years of experience on PCs have accustomed me to the virtues of monitoring this activity for signs of trouble. Plus, there's something satisfying about watching the little progress bars turn blue from end to end while the status line indicates a download icon, then an "installing" message, then "installed", then a security scan, and finally "Application X is safe," indicating that all is well with the world.

Only once in a blue moon does anything go wrong. My wi-fi connection might flake out, interrupting the download, or something is amiss with the package on the server so that it won't install. But even then there is little downside. Simply trying again will insure success, if not today then tomorrow, and in the meantime the existing app will keep plugging merrily along.

Gone are the days of waiting hours for a huge file to trickle down through a dialup connection only to have it error out a few percent before completion, making it necessary to start over. Gone, too, are the frequent disasters that sometimes still plague complex software installations on PCs -- be they Windows, Mac, or (dare I say it?) even Linux. Let's face it, Android and IOS have taken the end user experience to new levels of ease and reliability. People who used to stare dumbfounded at a screen asking them to press CTRL-ALT-DEL can now do whatever they want with the swipe of a finger or even by uttering some verbal commands.

But my epiphany was not about ease of use. Instead I found myself marveling over how small and compact all my apps were, and therefore how efficiently coded they must be. Some were only a megabyte or two, while the largest were not much above 20 megs -- miniscule in comparison with 700 meg CDs or 8 gigabyte DVDs. Then it suddenly hit me. Back when we had to install everything from floppy disks, each disk held barely more than a single megabyte (about 1.4). So those 20 meg files I was downloading in a fraction of a minute represented a dozen or more floppy disks -- exactly the sort of packaging that used to be required by something like Windows 95, Adobe Photoshop, or MS Office. In other words, these baby apps are about the same size as major applications used to be, only speed has made them seem trivially small. And the smaller the hardware gets, the faster it goes.

The same thing happened to Unix. If the PCs of 1985 had been able to run it, there would have been no need for DOS, Netware, and Windows (or the Mac OS) to serve as poor substitutes. But back then you needed a huge mainframe to get the resources of memory and disk space that the full-blown, multiuser, multitasking, network-connected Unix had to offer. Ten years later a Finnish computer student was able to create a Unix-like kernel small enough to run on a 386 PC. With the GNU project added on top it became Linux, which now runs on everything from supercomputers down to TV set-top boxes, and yes, Android phones -- while incidentally powering most of the Internet. (A different Unix clone, FreeBSD, lies beneath the pretty skin of OSX.)

So the next time you're fidgeting with impatience at how slow your updates are happening, reflect on the alternative. You could wait for a package to come in the mail, then start feeding one disk after another into that voracious slot on the front of your PC, listening to the measured thunks as the head moved from one track to the next (80 tracks per diskette -- you could count them), while hoping and praying that there were no bad spots or copying errors that might crash the whole procedure.

Don't you feel better now? I know I do.