February 2004 Archives

Thirteen Channels

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remote.jpg My current cable television service gives me over 200 channels. There was a time when all televisions only got thirteen channels. This was before UHF; before cable; before satellite. There was a rotary dial that clicked twelve times to the right and back twelve times to the left. Rarely did anyone actually get stations on all thirteen channels; a few were empty in large metropolitan areas and most were empty in rural parts of the nation. You got the big three networks and a few local stations that showed second tier syndicated shows, reruns, and old movies.

This came to me yesterday as I was reading an article in this week’s New Yorker magazine entitled “Select All - Can you have too many choices?” by Christopher Caldwell. The gist of the article is that humans, when faced with a plethora of options, are lousy choosers. In addition, all those choices can produce anxiety and regret, even when we’ve made the “right” choice. Psychologists have done many studies that show that the more options we are given, the less likely we are to make any decision at all and that those decisions that are made aren't always based on rational thought processes.

We try to cope in two ways. Some of us wade through the morass of choices (for a life partner, a DVD player, the best olive oil, a new car, etc.) searching for the absolute best; putting aside those options that are good, but not perfect. These folks tend to either never make any final choice at all, or to choose and then have remorse, and then choose again. The second group consciously limits their options or the standards by which they choose. This group contents itself with limiting the range of choices and being happy with choices that are “good enough” - that make them feel the choice resulted in a better than average result.

I checked my cable remote this morning and counted the number of channels I had programmed into the favorites button. There were thirteen.

Staying Up Late

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lombardo.jpgOur folks were out for a very late evening - it was a New Year�s Eve party. Vickie and I were to stay at home and baby-sit for our younger sibs. But this night would be different from all those other baby-sitting nights before. We could stay up as late as we wanted or until the folks got home.

We were heady with the excitement of complete freedom. We were in charge and, once the younger distractions were safe abed, could do whatever we pleased. Drunk with this power, yet inherently wimpy compared to many kids of our generation, we set about to make it an evening to remember.

Our list of pleasures was relatively short - see the ball drop for the first time on our lives, after that watch any television show we wanted (including those late-night, grown-up movies on channel 9), eat whatever snacks and drink the folks had left for us in grand style, and STAY UP LATE.

The distractions were put to bed without incident. All the TV shows on before midnight were just annoyances to us - something to get through before we entered the mystical adult world of post-midnight. Bored with variety shows and itchy to start the real fun, we decided to create a whole (miniature) fantasy world in the living room. All of the sofa and chair cushions came off and became islands scattered across the floor. We hopped from one to the next, pretending to be soldiers, or pirates, or explorers, or whatever. The chips and cookies left by the folks became provisions that were stashed island to island so that, once one of us made the daredevil leap of 2 feet from one to the next, an appropriate reward would await us. As usual, we assumed fantasy names. I was Jim. I don�t remember Vickie�s so I�ll assign her Elizabeth.

Jim and Elizabeth proceeded to fight off pirates, Indians, Nazis, and a host of other evil doers, stopping after each repulsed assault to tank up on soda, cookies, chips, and other evil-doer fighting necessities. Wave after wave was repulsed until we sat, sated and full, and became tired of the game. It was only 11 p.m.

Mr. Picassohead

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Feeling creative? Need something to while away some time on a rainy day?

Try Mr. Picassohead

Snowflake Bentley

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bently_flakes.jpgIn 1880, in the small village of Jericho, Vermont a fifteen year old boy who had been home taught by his mother on the family farm was given a microscope. Wilson Bentley’s mother had been a teacher before marrying her farmer husband and the small, old microscope had been part of her classroom equipment from years before. Wilson became entranced by the microscope and spent most of his free time putting any and everything under its lenses. Being a northern Vermont farm, that soon meant the snowflakes that began to fall in November. And being a northern Vermont farm in the late 19th century, that meant that there were always rooms in the house that were as cold as it was outside. Bentley spent a good amount of time over the next two winters peering at the snowflakes that fell regularly.

He tried drawing them but found he had little talent for it. Somehow he decided to ask his mother if would be possible to use a camera to take pictures through his microscope to record what he saw. That would require a bellows camera and a microscope objective at a cost of $100. One hundred dollars was an enormous sum for a farm family in 1883, yet his father surprised them both by agreeing to buy the equipment

It took Bentley more than a year to have any success. He knew nothing about photography and had to experiment using natural light in freezing conditions, but in the late winter of 1885 he created the first photomicrographs of snow crystals ever taken.oldredmill.jpg

Amazingly, Bentley then proceeded to spend the next 13 years working alone, photographing snow crystals, recording all the meteorological data for his samples, and postulating over the reasons for the myriad shapes and sizes. During all that time he never shared his discoveries with anyone in the scientific community. He did it for the sheer wonderment and joy of the world that he had entered into.

In 1898 a professor at the University of Vermont heard of his work and helped him to write an article for Popular Scientific Monthly. Bentley went on to photograph and publish right up to his death in 1931. During all that time he continued to use his original camera to study snow flakes, rain, and dew.

He never married and lived in the family farmhouse his whole life. He took over 5,000 photomicrographs. They are a testament to one person's love of the pursuit of knowledge.

The Jericho Historical Society has a section of their museum set up in the Old Red Mill to tell Bentley's story, display some of his photographs, and to preserve the history of the town. It's worth an hour or so of your time if you are ever in the the area near Burlington.

Email Catch-up

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I get so much email that it is very hard to keep up with getting back to everyone who writes. The surprising thing is the amount of email I get from complete strangers who are kind enough to offer me all sorts of solutions to my problems and opportunities to improve my situation. Maybe there are many more people reading this blog than I had thought. No matter, I just can�t keep up with individual responses. So in the hope that all of those kind folks are visiting this site regularly, I�m going to try to answer some of their email en masse here today.

Lindsay's Technical Books

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grindingandlapping.jpgIf our civilization ever disintegrates ala Mad Max, I hope that someone has had the foresight to have bought one each of the entire Lindsay's Technical Books Catalog. From an 1901 how-to on building your own car, to "modern" locomotive construction, to the art of casting iron, this is a techie's dream.

When I first thought about writing up Lindsay's, I thought that it might be too much a guy-thing. That came mainly from the overwhelmingly male feel to all these books. But then I realized that (most of) these manuals were written many years ago and that, if written today, the appeal would be geek, not male. These were all written by folks who actually built things like carbon arc torches and have all the seriousness of any modern book on programming or computer graphics. That's not to say that there aren't scads of really funny titles and subjects sprinkled throughout (check out the I Love to Fart Cookbook ). The illustrations alone are a hoot.

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What appeals to me, though, is the idea that the info is waiting out there for us if we want to convert wood to charcoal and electricity, make a whistle, or construct a large format camera. We spend 99% of our lives acquiring things that other have made for us. There is a deep satisfaction in "making your own", whether it is a home cooked meal or a windmill. More of us would be happy with our lives if we could point to something tangible once in a while and say, "I made that." It needn't be a Tesla disc turbine engine. It could be a planter, a drawing, or a ham radio. It could be a cake from scratch, a coffee table, or a flower arrangment. Creating the tangible gives us meaning. It is the ultimate human endeavor.

A NOTE: The web site doesn't actually sell the books directly - you have to have the paper catalog in front of you when you fill out an on-line order form or you can call to order. But the web site does have some reprints of the book descriptions and some articles about people today who are doing things like building their own circa 1900 steam runabout .

Order a catalog and be entertained by how far we've come from actually building things. Order a book and learn how to make your own plastic vacuum forming machine, make homebrew root beer, or preserve the dead.

You'll be better for it.

One President Left Behind

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This is a real quote, taken from the White House web site. Our President is giving a speech to a group of mayors about education. Do a find for the phrase "you wake up".
"Then you wake up at the high school level and find out that the illiteracy level of our children are appalling."
Enough said.

M.I.Y. #2 - Walking with Wanda

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My Imagined Youth

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One piece of housekeeping before we begin. In my first piece I refered the to four post war kids in my family as the "contemporaries" and the three who came later as "LOBC - Lack Of Birth Control" kids. The LOBCs seemed to like the shorthand so I'm changing the first group to PWBS - Post War Baby Siblings.


My PWBS will surely remember this episode from the summer of 1956 wherein Chris and I had a terrifying experience with one of Jane's Dolls.

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2004 listed from newest to oldest.

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