Friday, July 14, 2017

A short one!

I will confess an untested bias: my view is that being observand and anylitic, once a generally lauded combination, is considered 'unkewl' and nerdy in this era of hyper-specialization.

Here is my mostly unscientific way to test this theory. I would ask readers to rcomment on this post—briefly is fine—in answer to three questions:
1) Have you ever consciously noted that manhole covers are always round?
2) Have you thought about why, and/or made any efforts to get the answer?
3) When were you born?
3a) OPTIONAL, but I suspect also interesting: Are you male, or female?

NOTE: I would ask that you NOT give the actual answer to the question of WHY the covers are round; we will come back to this later.

Efficiency Meditation

We use that word without often considering its meaning... and most ot the time it leads to no confusion. "Conrad's Prius is sooooo efficient!" will not elicit too many arguments, but will lead to statements about how many miles per gallon he has been getting.

Thirty years ago, I provoked some warm discussion by asserting levelly that my sweetly tuned 36 horesepower 1200cc 1960 Beetle was not nearly as efficient as my friend Scott's 3500 lb. 4 door 1963 Mercury, with its 390 cubic inch V-8 which preferred to guzzle the higher grade swill.

If you can correctly assume that the efficiency implied is 'miles (traveled) per gallon (of fuel consumed)' you will be wehre most advertising copy writers and the general public start out, and seem to stay. But 'fuel efficiency' can also mean 'ton-mile per unit fule consumed.' While I may have enjoyed the argument, I was also able to use Scott's car to make a point that is getting more germane as more and more people become awere of their 'carbon footprint' and want to minimize harm personally, while pressing to realign practices and technologies globally.

Scott's beast, which never managed to exceed 19 miles pre gallon, even on the highway, was getting 2.5 times as much 'stuff' from point A to point B but only consuming 19/32 the fuel of my 1600 lb Beetle in the process. And if you put three big frat brothers in his car, the change in performance and ...'efficiency,' was very hard to detect, while stuffing three passengers into my beloved old Wolfbang meant that one could not hold 62 mph on a 3% incline, mileage per gallon would drop to the mid 20s, and the high gears were seen less frequently.

You all need this concept and this vocabulary to think about our transport needs. The very compelling argument for the MTA transit bus is not the 5 mpg it gets, lumbering around Queens... it is the 20 cars it keeps off the road while doing it.

We need to ponder whether the over-the-road Peterbilt tractor, pulling a trailer with a 10 ton load should not be replaced, wherever practicable, by a 2 engine, 100 car freight train using 1/8 the same diesel, for every payload ton-mile.

the term 'efficiency,' by itself, lacks the specification of 'something-per-unit-of-something else.' Even the seeimgly specific 'fuel efficiency'

Yeah, you're that young

The prime audience for this blog (initially, at least) is fellow students of Prof. Suprenant's course, 'Intro to Technology Services,' which we might informally think of as 'Computer history and Importance.' While that course is impetus for blogging, the classes, with theirs 'old-tech show-and-tell' sessions (and the professor's anecdotes) is inspiration for some of my thinking here. I am, from the perspective of my typical 20- or 30-something classmate, virtually as old as the mani in the front of the room

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Old Fashioned Popcorn

A roommate in his late thirties seems to have forgotten how "they used to make popcorn," because he was stunned to see it done on the stovetop, not in the microwave. (I have done it it fireplace and campfire, too, but that will not be covered this time.)

I know that it is real butter, and how much, because I put it there. Nor do I give control over the amount of salt to Orville or Paul or Jolly Rodger, so it really is to my taste.

If your store still stocks the popping kernels, likely well above or below the prime eye-level location, note that the 1lb. bag costs about half of the box of '8 servings.' It makes about 30 similar volume servings.

The technique outlined here will typically yield a waste of 5-12 unpopped kernels, which is far better performance than most of the microwave bags... if you try to get those last 30-50 unpopped ones by adding 15 seconds the next time, you run the risk of burning some of the popped corn and adding an unpleasant smoke flavor to the whole batch.
In a saucepan with heavy bottom and tight-fitting lid, pour just enough cooking oil to coat the bottom. (Olive oil will burn—do not use!) Pour in somewhat less than enough seed to cover the bottom; roll the pan around a bit to ensure all the loose seeds get coated with the oil. Go for high heat and stay close. As the seeds pop and build an insulating blanket above the bottom of the pan, you can cut your heat in half, then be ready, the moment you have gotten to less than a pop-per-second, to cut the gas or snatch it from the coil if using electric. Tip the popped corn into a serving bowl, then melt some butter in the bottom of the same pan and drizzle it over the corn in the bowl. I like to put salt in my palm to judge the amount, before dusting the surface of the fresh hot steamy stuff in the bowl. I use my table knife to stir popcorn up from the bottom and mix it with the dredged and salted stuff on the top.
You will come to judge how much of each item with time. I like a TBS of butter and 1/8 tsp. of salt for a batch scaled to my 6 qt. saucepan, which yields two very generous servings. In a smaller saucepan, one which is shorter than 5 inches, don't cover the entire bottom of the pan with seed unless you like the thrill of having the batch lift the cover off the top, and maybe a few escapees catching fire before you finish.

On a gas stove, you will be using substantially less energy than microwaving a batch, but with an electric stove you will use more.

I don't serve it with napkins, unless asked. Just as I regard popcorn as a vehicle for ingesting salt and butter, I would consider not licking it off the fingers to be an inexcusable waste! I am left with a pan, serving vessel and knife to clean, but if they are added to the next batch, the added energy consumption—carbon foot print and my own animal energy—is negligible.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Slippery slope of sensibilities

My overarching theme has been the increasing isolation, in our 'developed' (but devolving) society, of the average person from the resources, design, production, repair, and even disposal of the 'stuff' on which we all rely. This could be energy, steel or lumber, or more refined things like automobiles, computers, furniture.

I see a semantic creep abroad in the land (now through the lens of a library science student) that has me pensive, and offer it for your own reflection. Newfangled objects of current popular adulation are paired with quainter terms whose function and sensibility they seem to displace:

information:knowledge :: consumer:customer :: producer:creator

The informal title of this Blog, it occurs to me, may be lost on readers 'below a certain age.' In an era within the cultural memory when I was learning the language, the Saturday night family bath ritual entailed filling the big galvanized washtub with water heated on the woodstove in the kettle... and was reused for all family members! It could be pretty foul for the last member, and all were cautioned to not "throw out the baby with the bathwater."

Something precious may well be disguised in what we are in such a rush to discard. I fear that literal and fugurative dirt under our collective fingernails is a wonderful thing, as it speaks to our independence and power to dealing with our practical world on a common ground where we have lots of options, and are not 'victims' but real players. We interface directly with the real world rather than experience the making and maintaining of its bounty through machines, corporations, or countries that isolate us—at a cost—from all that messy, gritty stuff. We have lost the satisfaction of knowing how to do things for ourselves, and to knowingly evaluate the handiwork of others.

Crafts and hobbies used to be much more central to the typical person's leisure, and gave them a direct appreciation for the skill and quality that went into those things that they DID purchase from others.

Got ten minutes for a 'green rant' about rampant consumerism? Go to
I think that some of the old-fashioned involvement with all aspects of 'stuff,' will serve us well in getting our sorry world on a recovering track.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How to know when you are Really Learning

As an older student (starting a masters at a 'youngish' 54), I arrived with plenty of real-world knowledge and 'conceptions.' (If you have had them this long, and came by 'em honestly, they are no longer PREconceptions.) It might look like baggage to the pedagogue, even one who is my contemporary, because he or she is so used to looking at relatively blank slates.

You know you are learning when you personally experience paradigm shift.

This is the mental equivalent of going back to the gym after a lapse, and selecting a personal trainer who acknowledged, but just, that you are different from supple young things that seem made for overexertion and subsequent tissue repair.

I have not been asked to leave my past at the gate, but no one will carry it in for me here, either. I was admitted to the academy, now I have to admit the academy into me.

I am looking for intellectual dialogue, if not communion, which I could find on occasion 'before,' but in my school's mostly-commuter population, the chemistry is all wrong. Everyone is always rushing to or from campus, and now I understand why there is no suitable hangout—nothing remotely resembling one, anywhere within a mile of the campus, even—for the kind of intellectual sparring that I craved as an undergrad and in all the aeons since...

The present intellectual 'boot camp' has me in cold-turkey withdrawal from the very stimulation I anticipated. I could use that succor, and kvetching here in monologue only seems to worsen the itch.

It looks like I may make it to the point where I 'pass' boot camp. Guess I will know when the drill-sergeants start saluting back!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Drive By Wire

'Throttle Cable' was a very straightforward name of a car or truck part until recent years; it ran from your gas pedal directly to the throttle lever on your carburettor. Input from driver to engine is becoming ever more mediated by electronic processing. Many vehicles now take your right foot's input as 'demand' input (electromechanical) into a computer, where it is one of several values that are processed, then an electromechanical output (via rod or cable linkage) operates the throttle in a housing or body on the intake side of your engine. Similarly, timing of the ignition spark (and in some cases now, valve operation) is modulated by this processor; each used to be adjusted mechanically and in isolation from the other variables, maximized for at most a few different engine operation regimes.

Those who have driven relatively low powered vehicle might remember being able to 'feel' when additional throttle application gained no additional performance and wasted fuel, or even inhibited performance gains, or when they wanted to be at a certain speed with the throttle already 'packed' to that point of diminishing returns, in order to crest the coming hill without losing a gear. Today's driver, for two reasons, will not generally have such learning opportunities. The vehicles are almost all powered, for their weight, in what we used to call 'sports car' category (1 horsepower or more per 14 lbs of weight) so 'feel' for differences in grade and wind is very subtle. And the sensors and brains are mediating between what we want (demand, via our right foot or the speed control) and the engine components and functions which will deliver.

I will not rail against anti-lock brakes, but point out that the instruction one can get from learning how to feel for the modulation point, where you are at the limits of adhesion between your tires and the road, also instructs about when steering will get squirmy too. Directional control, braking and acceleration all depend on the instantaneous condition of adhesion between four points of contact between tires and earth surface... and 'progress' is taking from us some of the direct ways skilled drivers used to make that very sensible.

Back to our sophisticated throttles: the main downside here is that the connection many of us felt with the primary mover, which told us lots about its capabilities, limits and needs, was also telling us a lot about efficiencies (if we were paying attention). Lots of this is generalizable knowledge, and will prove very useful to us as we figure how to manage fewer resources for more people. The related secondary loss is that engineer/inventor types, and their appreciators, have been put at a remove from the lessons that driving a car could teach about power generation and use.

For now, I hope that lots of Prius drivers are digesting the interesting computer graphics and learning how to get even better mileage by letting up on the 'gas pedal.' Our lives abound in very relevant physics lessons, although we seem to be getting more protected from them all the time!