Archive for October, 2010

You know the drill

October 13, 2010 6 comments

My son picked up this little beauty at a yard sale, for a buck:

Muscle-powered hand-operated drill

Muscle-powered hand-operated drill

He already has one – a beautiful antique Craftsman about this size, but he wanted to give this one to a friend as a gift.  It was dirty and rusty and would barely turn, but he knew with a little cleaning and oil it would work like new.  And it does now. For a buck, he’s giving his friend a gift that will last a lifetime and could be passed on to his kids.

If you don’t have one of these in your toolbox, I encourage you to find one.  There are several advantages: no cords or batteries to mess with, no maintenance (other than 2 drops of light machine oil once a year) and it gives you very precise control of the drill.   This can be important if you don’t want to drill all the way through something, like a desktop starting from underneath.

They’re surprisingly easy to use.  Unscrew the chuck a little until it opens up to the drill bit diameter and put in the drill bit.  Holding the knob and handle together to keep the spindle from turning, tighten the chuck onto the drill bit.  Then drill.  Practice makes perfect, and you’ll start to look at that imprecise, overly complex battery-operated one as more trouble than it’s worth.

It’s also nice knowing that it can be repaired, and it could still be in use decades after you’re gone.  It makes you think about what “value” means.

I have a cheap one of these made of plastic, that I keep in my tool bag at work – it weighs almost nothing and is fine for mounting outlet strips and other sundries under desks.  But at home I have two of them:

A top-quality, dual-gear model, my favorite; it has room for drill bits in the handle. I carry this with me on projects. Click picture to embiggen.
Check this heavy-duty model out; it has two torque settings, by moving the gear up or down on the pinion, a chest-brace (to apply more pressure, and a built-in spirit level to ensure level drilling. Click picture to embiggen.

UPDATE: This picture was sent in by reader Chas, of a drill at least five decades older than the one I have, yet identical. A perfect example of; “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Still perfectly functional.

Chas' drill

Picture submitted by reader Chas, of identical drill at least five decades older than the one I have. Click to embiggen.

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Powers of Ten

October 11, 2010 2 comments

I almost forgot!  Today is 10/10/10.  Numerologists all over the world are probably wetting themselves with excitement. Do I need to say that no, it really isn’t more significant than other days, despite the neat symmetry of its printed date?

Screenshot from PowersOf10 website

One square meter

But it gives me a chance to talk about a picture book and film that changed how I understand the universe: Powers Of Ten.  Both begin with a picture of a couple having a picnic in Soldier Field in Chicago. They’re laying on the grass and a square appears enclosing one meter.  The picture changes with the addition of digits to the exponent, and it isn’t very many pages before we see the solar system, the galaxy, and at 1025m,  a one-billion light-year chunk of the universe itself.  With the little picnic still in the exact center.

But then the film returns (at considerably more than the speed of light) to the couple having their picnic, and begins delving into the surface of the man’s hand – subtracting one from the exponent each time, passing skin layers, capillaries, lymphocyte, DNA…  until we see subatomic particles in a square 10-16m on a side.

The film was commissioned by IBM and produced in 1968 by Charles & Ray Eames.  It has received tribute from the opening sequence of Men In Black and from an opening sequence of The Simpsons. It has inspired other books and films and not without reason; it is mind-blowing stuff.  I don’t know why IBM commissioned the film.  Maybe it was because their corporate slogan was “Machines should work; people should think” and years later the film has a proven record of provoking thought.

My dad took me to a showing at the University of Iowa at Iowa City and I don’t think I was ever the same after seeing it.  You could hardly come away without thinking that our perspective is terribly occluded, and about what it means that we can now broaden our understanding of the universe with scientific instruments.

Powers Of Ten scheme

Paging through the book is a tour of the universe from galaxies to sub-atomic particles

Evolution equipped our senses and perceptions to the physical, electromagnetic and temporal scale of our lives.  From an evolutionary perspective there’s not much point in our being able to perceive subatomic particles or the moons of Saturn.  Nor are our brains really equipped to grasp timelines that greatly exceed our lifespans, or which are briefer than, say, a thirtieth of a second.  Our eyes evolved to use the narrow band between infrared, which isn’t that good for imaging with water-filled lenses, and ultraviolet, which is ionizing radiation and tends to damage biochemical sensors like rods and cones.  But if you look at that little slice in proportion to the whole electromagnetic spectrum, we’re seeing, as Richard Dawkins quipped, through “the mother of all Burqas”.

The ancient Greeks were having none of it; just using sticks they calculated the Earth’s diameter to three decimal places, and figured out that we orbit the Sun.  Galileo made telescopes, Leeuwenhoek microscopes, and as time passed many other scientific instruments and disciplines emerged to dig into things we could not see or grasp unaided.  I found all this, to say the least, tremendously inspirational.  Warped my mind pretty good, it did.  It got me in the habit of owning microscopes, telescopes, and of always carrying a magnifying glass – a habit which persists to this day.

  • Wikipedia: Powers Of Ten
  • VIEW THE FILM HERE! (Thanks IBM for hosting the site)  Call your kids into the room…
  • Use an interactive ^10 demo at the Powers Of Ten home page.  Simply click on the slider at left to control the zoom level.
  • Powers Of Ten on Amazon – you can pick up a used copy for about three bucks plus shipping.  Home schoolers, take note.
    (Click to embiggen)
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Obscure movie reference quiz

October 9, 2010 2 comments

It’s night in Los Angeles, and a superfluity of nuns is crossing the street beside the church.  An ambulance stops to wait for them.  The driver, sipping his beer from a brown bottle, silently watches the sisters as they pass by. It’s a sad moment.  Who’s the driver?

(Give up?)

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I was so proud of her…

October 8, 2010 4 comments

She’s old and so frail, as thin as a rail, a bony old kitty with a sweet personality.  Her eyes have cataracts and she has trouble with stairs and gets confused sometimes.  But there she was in the yard, stalking something.  Her attention was on a squirrel; she moved forward by centimeters, ever so slowly and quietly.

And considering her condition, it was quite a burst of speed.  She ran through the grass and across the street.  Of course, in her best days, she could never catch a squirrel.  She had always gone for bugs and the occasional mouse.  The squirrel looked up and I think it may have laughed as it ran three feet up the tree trunk.

They stayed still, regarding each other until I scooped her up and brought her trembling inside, and I combed her fur and talked softly to her, and gave her a little snack for a reward.  Exhausted, she lay on the rug in front of the sink, her head on the floor looking up at me.

There’s a last time for everything, I suppose; was this her last pursuit? Will there be more?  Might she be hit by a car in that single-minded dash across the street?  She is such a good kitty; I am sure going to miss her when she’s gone.

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Meta pain-dream

October 5, 2010 1 comment

Pain dreams are familiar to anyone with chronic pain; you’re in physical pain, but you’re asleep and dreaming, so your dream finds some explanation for the pain.  Because of fibromyalgia I’ve had thousands of them over the years.  In one recurring dream, I’m in a building which collapses, and I’m lying there with my legs crushed under a mountain of bricks.  In another I’m held down by something heavy on my shoulders or hip.

That was before I was diagnosed and learned some management strategies that help me reduce the pain load to something, well, manageable.  Mostly I exercise a lot at a very specific pace, and it does make things better.  So those dreams are rare now but occasionally I get out-of-synch, including last night.

Last night I dreamed that I was sleeping on a hard cot, and in pain and dreaming and that the pain was invading my dream and I cried out, and I woke up… in the dream and someone was concerned.  And then some other stuff happened and then I did wake up for real.  The room was dark, Diane was snoring, Oscar stretched out a little and put his paws on my shoulder, and my hip was killing me.

Huh.  A pain dream within a pain dream. That’s a new one.

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Dumb Comcast service

October 4, 2010 5 comments

My mother called to ask for help because her Internet was down.  Oh, she called Comcast first, of course, and the highly-trained script-reader ran some kind of remote diagnostics on her cable modem.  “I’m not seeing any trouble on this end,” he said.

Try this, he said.  She couldn’t find it.  Try that, he said.  Nope, can’t find that either.  Oh, you’re not running Windows?  Not Macintosh? Well then we just don’t know what to do with you.  He couldn’t wait to get her off the line.

Look, Comcast, I know Linux is a minority platform, but you must have some actual geeks in your organization somewhere; have them write some phone scripts for your support-line people, m’kay?  Her machine was fine, and we don’t expect an 82-year-old to be expert on any computer platform.

Anyway, here’s what the Comcast guy didn’t do: he didn’t ask my mother to actually look at the cable modem.  Or as my mother the grammar authority would say; actually to look at the cable modem.

She called me, and I did have her look, there was one lonely little yellow light labeled “Standby”".  The four, normally-green lights (two steady, two flashing) were dark.  Wouldn’t this have been a sort of, you know… “clue?”  Remote diagnostics are sometimes misleading, which is why the modem has external indicator lights.

Resetting the cable modem box (press and hold the button 6 seconds, then release) fixed the problem.  Three days offline, fixed in a moment.  I found the information about their cable modem on  Maybe they should tell their phone-support script-readers about that website.

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Manhattan Short Film Festival 2010

October 3, 2010 Comments off

Unable to get a date for the evening, last night I went alone to the Manhattan Short Film Festival.  The first couple entries made me wonder if I’d made a mistake, but then…

My vote for the evening (The Normal Theater is one of several around the world that participate in worldwide voting) was a wonderful, beautiful amazing French animated diary of Madagascar.  If the idea of 3-dimensional watercolor animation appeals to you – the last scene was like something out of Avatar, only in watercolor – you might really enjoy this short film.  Unfortunately you can’t view them online (a major frustration I have with the film festival) so I have no viewing link for you. But you can read interviews with the artists at the MSFF site linked above.

As is often the case, I simply didn’t get some of the entries or thought they were rather trite in trying to push the audience’s emotional buttons. And a few were OK but not over-the-top, so I just won’t mention them.  Some others that I liked a lot included Echo, The Pool, 12 Years, and War (the last two being straight-up hilarious).

Postscript: I just remembered there’s a perfectly dreadful kids’ movie named Madagascar.  Not at all like the short film I saw last night.

Did anyone else see the festival?  What was your vote?  Which one did you especially not like?

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The zillion-piece jigsaw puzzle in my head

October 2, 2010 2 comments

So why in the hell am I up at 4:00am, thinking about bolts? It’s a simple concept after all. A bolt is just a type of screw, which is a circular inclined plane: apply torque around its axis and you get force along the axis. Instead of sleeping, my addled brain is reciting bolt specifications: diameter, length, shank, head style, thread style, thread pitch, alloy, grade, plating.  But I probably missed a few; shop class was 37 years ago. Even today if I see a thread pitch gauge I know what it is and how to use it.

Bear with me, please.  I must be going somewhere with this.  It certainly goes beyond bolts…

Most people are vaguely aware that bolts hold their cars and their lawn furniture together, but the sheer variety of bolts is over the horizon. Two bolts might look the same, but you better hope the engineer who specifies the bolt that anchors your seat belts knows what grade to use.

Bolts are just one tiny part of the industrial reality all around us. There are special arc welding rods whose only purpose is to deposit a super-hard bead on a surface. They are useless for connecting one piece of metal to another, but good for improving the surface wear durability of, say, a backhoe shovel. There are lubricants whose only purpose is to keep screw threads from seizing under load. Other lubricants, like molybdenum grease, are made for high-pressure applications, while lithium grease is for sliding applications. Or super-light oils for the tiny bearings in your watch – which are themselves made of artificial ruby. Rubies, artificial or otherwise, are aluminum oxide with chromium impurities. They’re fantastically hard, though diamonds are much harder.

Metallurgy is crucially important. If you are driving a really small car, you should hope the manufacturer specified a boron-alloy steel for the passenger cage. Your passenger airplane is probably held together with several different kinds of rivets, unless it’s a new Boeing Dreamliner, in which case it’s mostly reinforced plastic and held together with glue. The wires in your toaster are a nickel-chromium alloy; the magnets in your Toyota Prius were doped with dysprosium, which China is currently withholding from Japan. At one time there were dysprosium mines elsewhere in the world, but the Chinese put them out of business by selling below market value.

This could go on all day; I hope it doesn’t.

I don’t know why my brain decided bolts were important at 4am but I can see that like most things, the simple idea gives birth to complicated reality. The standards and infrastructure that we live with now took literally centuries to develop – including machines that mass-produce bolts so you can go to Farm & Fleet and buy them by the pound.

OK, that gets me to 4:30 am and my mind is still wandering. Suppose you wanted to introduce a new style of bolt? It’s been done many times, and the new styles didn’t replace the old ones; they just made the textbooks fatter. Engineers have an ever-increasing set of options, old and new, to realize their designs. Sometimes they opt for the old designs because Marketing told them to avoid confronting customers with anything that might require purchasing an uncommon tool. This is true all the way up the scale from bolts to how electricity grids work, or how we fuel our cars to get to work: an intricately interlocking puzzle of industrial standards and consumer habits (plus corporate inertia and short-sightedness) push up the social and financial cost of change.

Implementation of new ideas always stumbles. When railroads first started building bridges of cast iron (a new wonder-material), spectacular train wrecks followed. The material was incredibly strong but no one knew about metal fatigue. Then Henry Bessemer invented a way to mass-produce steel, which combined ductility with strength and suddenly it was economical to make train bridges across wide rivers. Economic growth followed rails into new territory.

If a time-traveler went back to the early days of the industrial revolution and started describing the complexity of today’s infrastructure, he’d have been laughed out of the room. But suppose the time-traveler came from our future, describing tomorrow’s infrastructure? What if the message was a warning: you need to change as fast as you can, and hang the cost?

Corporations, consumers, citizens and governments too often make decisions based on slogans or group identity, or on what’s familiar and what will sell. I can imagine the time-traveler going home in disgust. “They’re a lost cause”, he might say; “all they care about is big stores, cheap goods and waving their flags around.”

The same might be true of social change. What if a time-traveler on the bar stool next to yours said that someday, the way we currently fund education or medical care or handle drug enforcement or the way we mistreat minorities and exploit the environment would be a source of national shame, and we could have a much better world right now by using our imaginations and our brains?

Turn on the TV or the radio and you’ll hear a whole pundit class of people who want things to be simple again, but the truth is; things never were that simple. Like homeowners buying a pound of bolts at the hardware store, we simply never gave the hidden complexities any thought. So proposing new models and new solutions has always been a shocking act: “How would that work, exactly?” What would it mean if we couldn’t let children work in our factories anymore? Nobody could afford textiles anymore! What would it mean if the civil rights law were passed? We’d lose all our freedom! Emphasis on “our”.

We don’t have time-travelers, but we do have a close approximation in scientists and historians, which is to say people who look for the complications that follow simple ideas. It might depend on our ability to embrace complexity over simplicity, to keep learning about an idea until its connections and effects become apparent, and to imagine what it would be like if things really were different from the way they are now.

I guess that’s why I don’t sleep in the small hours of the morning. My head keeps skipping from one thing to another, to another and then another. Not a very interesting point, I guess, but it’s something for amusement the next time you bolt some furniture together.

OK, it’s five O’clock. Guess I’ll go upstairs and get some breakfast. Yogurt and some toast. That gets me thinking about the dairy industry and wheat farming, and nuclear power that makes the electricity that powers my refrigerator and my toaster, and about uranium mining and yellowcake and…


OK, it’s three days later; I took the picture of a bolt to illustrate the post, but I still keep thinking about the connections. Where’s the nickel (which plates the bolt) mined? What’s the state of mine-safety technology? Do mining companies pay lobbyists to keep the laws lax? Or more likely, does the manufacturer just buy the nickel salts for plating from some third-world country where the government doesn’t protect the workers or the rivers or the children who live along them? Is that why the bolts are so cheap? What’s the external cost of the carbon output from manufacturing the bolt? Maybe that’s the reason I saved the bolt that was left over from a project of years ago.  Or maybe I’m just really cheap.

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