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For a couple of miserable years I lived in the suburbs of Detritus, Michigan. It was the Motor City with a vengeance. The Ford kids beat up the Chevy kids. Both of these gangs beat up the few miserable Chrysler kids in the school. My father didn't work for any of the car companies, so everyone beat me up.

I have often said I'm glad I have forgotten the names of everyone I knew at that school. It means I don't feel guilty for failing to make the world a better place by hunting them all down and killing them. Did I mention that these were not happy times for me?

Be that as it may, being shackled to the Auto Industry had some interesting side effects too. For example, our games of marbles involved a lot of "steelies." These were large ball bearings that shop rats had brought home as toys for their kids. I never did find out whether the name came from what they were made of or from how they were obtained.

We also had some balls, in varying marble-like sizes, made of some brown-streaked material that looked more or less like limestone. I forget what we called them. Someone told me his dad got them for him out of one of the tumbler vats at the shop, where they were used to clean materials before assembly or something like that. I shudder now wondering what they might have been made of.

We heard all the shop legends too, of how bored shop rats might hide ball bearings inside the door panel of a Cadillac going down the line, along with a note that said "you finally found the rattle, you rich bastard." Or how if one of the assembly line workers ordered a new car, in a basic version, by the time it got to the end of the assembly line it would have every deluxe option in the book. Or how, on the other hand, some poor schmuck once ordered a Chevrolet bone stock, with no options at all- and crashed the inventory computer system for the entire plant. Nobody EVER ordered a car with no options at all. Nobody had thought to program the computers to allow such a possibility.

Option-buying couldn't have been any more different from today. Today even the most basic version of most cars will have a good radio, power windows, air conditioning, and a dozen other things which were expensive options or not available at all back in the day. The auto industry has twigged that it is cheap and easy to equip base models well, as long as they're all equipped the same way, and to offer upgrades as packages. When I bought my most recent car I could have had any number of individual appearance gadgets added at the dealership, but for individual items offered as factory options I think the only two available were a moonroof and a navigation package.

Back then options were individual items, except perhaps for a "power package" which might be power steering and brakes, or other such basic packages. And you really couldn't have a decent car without buying at least a few options. An engine big enough to actually move the car, an automatic transmission, a radio (AM only), power steering, power brakes, hubcaps, all were optional. At first, even the OIL FILTER was an optional extra on Chevrolets.

Air conditioning in cars was almost unheard-of. When I saw it, it was an after market add-on unit that occupied most of the space under the dashboard. When I first became aware of power windows they were an item of disgust, since who would be so lazy they couldn't be bothered to crank down a window?

In this era where you can hardly buy a toaster or a flashlight that doesn't have a clock built in, it may seem incredible that a car clock was a very expensive optional extra. Nobody I knew got them. There was always a flat plate in the dash, surrounded by a bezel of some kind, where the clock should go, but not a clock in there. Car clocks had a bad reputation, and well they might. They would have been a battery-driven mechanical clock, and you can only imagine the reliability problems of a mechanical clock subject to the heat, cold, shock, vibration, and dust inherent in an automotive installation. All the more so because the clocks were, supposedly, more complicated than most. Mechanical clocks are inaccurate, so you had to keep resetting the one in your car. Supposedly, if you set it ahead, that would make the clock run a little faster; if you set it back, a little slower, until you zeroed in on the right speed. Clever, but crazy complicated.

By the time I was driving myself a lot of this nonsense had gone away. The only really stripped down cars on the road were Government Specials. For a while, after certain luxuries became standard equipment, the State sent their cars to a special shop to have radios and such removed. Because the generous Taxpayers would get bent out of shape thinking of state employees driving around in their AMC Hornets with air conditioning and a tinny single-speaker AM-FM radio. We had to be denied such luxuries, even if they cost nothing more; even, in fact, if the State had to pay extra to have them removed.

These days it's hard to buy a car that doesn't have a pretty good suite of luxury and comfort features as standard. These days, if the car comes standard with power windows, air conditioning, and a radio, even we public employees are allowed to use them. That's one way today is better than the Good Old Days.
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Nothing makes me feel self-righteously wise better than finding out that one of my silly superstitions is correct. To wit: Keep your gas tank as full as possible in winter to avoid getting water in there.

My theory (which turns out to be correct) was that much of the water in your gas tank condenses out from the air. You always have some air in the gas tank. As temperature rises and falls the air expands and contracts, moving some old air out and some new air in. Moisture comes in with the new air, condenses out inside your tank, and there you are, water in the gas.

My friend Tom, who comes from a family that owns gas stations, told me you should never buy gasoline at a station that's receiving a shipment from a tanker truck.

"Because the gas station might explode?"

He laughed at me. "No. Well, actually, if it's ever going to explode it's more likely to when they're getting a shipment, but when does that ever happen?"

There isn't, or wasn't, a downtown Birch Run because the gas station went up while they were taking in a shipment one day, but I didn't mention that. "What's the reason, then?"

"There's always sand, grit, water. You know, miscellaneous crud. There's always some of that in the bottom of the gasoline tank. When they're filling the tank from a truck it stirs up all the crud. You fill up then, you get the stirred-up crud pumped right into your gas tank."

Makes sense to me.

Once you DO get water in your gas tank, you have to put alcohol in there to get rid of it. Maybe the best way is to buy a tank of gasohol, gasoline plus 10% ethanol. Ethanol mixes well with water (that's what vodka is, maybe 40% ethanol and 60% water) and it mixes with gasoline, so burning a tank or two of that will mix the water into your fuel and burn it out of the system a bit at a time.

Sometimes I add gas line antifreeze, which is alcohol too. There are two kinds they sell for that purpose. The slightly cheaper is methanol, wood alcohol. It will mix with the water and prevent it from freezing, which is good, but it doesn't mix well with gasoline, so it won't work the water out of the system. Isopropyl alcohol costs a bit more but will make that three way water/ gas/ alcohol mixture and get rid of the moisture once and for all, so I think it's better. They don't advertise which they're using very much, though. You have to read the fine print on the bottle most of the time.

The stuff works pretty well. Witness another story a friend told me, about this AMC Hornet wagon he drove once.

The Hornet had many delightful design features, including a full size spare tire (as they all were, then) that was mounted in a slanted well in the back, under the floor. I don't know why they did it that way, I don't know why AMC did anything they did. When water leaked into the back (and some water always leaks in) it would get into that well, as the lowest possible point. But that was OK. As with many things in cars, there are drain holes to get rid of any water that happened to accumulate in there.

Fine and dandy, until the holes plugged. Rust and mosquitoes were both breeding in there.

Well, my friend took a screwdriver and cleaned out the drain hole. Got all the water to drain through the drain hole, and splashed a bit more water in there to rinse things out. Worked that down through the drain hole too.

You know where this is going. About that time he noticed none of the water was coming out the bottom of the car. What he had done was, with the paper-thin rust prone steel AMC used, he had rubbed a hole through the top of the gas tank (which was under the station wagon's cargo floor) and had put all that rust and water right into the fuel. The name of Helen Blazes was invoked with great fervor.

What he should have done was pull the tank, get it cleaned out, and probably clean the fuel lines and replace the fuel filter while he was at it. But the car was an oil-burning rust bucket and wasn't worth the maintenance cost. So what he DID do was run about three gallons of gas line antifreeze through the thing.

It worked just fine. No problems.
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I'd guess there are still many places where the fire siren blows to mark noon and 6:00 PM. That's handy for those who don't wear watches, which is more of us than it used to be. It was even handier back in the old days where many people didn't wear watches because they didn't have one.

When I was a kid it was handy even if you did wear a watch. As they all were, mine was mechanical. As many were, it was accurate to about five minutes a day-- which is close enough for any practical purpose, if you stop and think about it. In any case it was inaccurate enough that regular time signals, to allow me to correct it, were convenient.

Of course blowing the horn at noon was a bit obsolete even then because we had electric clocks. Every so often I still hear some guy on an antiques show marveling that the electric clock he got from his grandmother still keeps perfect time. Well, all a classic electric clock does is turn at a rate exactly synchronized to the cycles in line current. (The new analog electric clocks seem to be battery quartz movements hitched to a plug in electric transformer; this is cheaper than a synchronous electric motor, I suppose, and can keep running in a power failure if it has a backup battery. But it's not smooth like the old synchronous motor electric clocks are.) A classic electric clock will keep perfect time, if it runs at all, because the folks at the power company take great care to make sure their current cycles at the exact correct rate. They're talking about not doing that any more, because so few people depend on the classic synchronous-motor electric clocks, and a little bit off on the cycle speed here causes no problems otherwise. But for now the current in your wall outlets is perfectly synchronized, and your grandmother's electric clock works just fine.

People value what they don't have. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the world of watch geekery. Anybody can go down to Wal-Mart and, for well under $20, buy a quartz watch that is so accurate that resetting it twice a year for daylight savings time would keep you on time for all your appointments year round. Do watch geeks love these marvels, these true marvels, of mass market technical brilliance? They do not. They want a Rolex or an even more costly self-winding mechanical watch, a watch that costs hundreds of dollars JUST TO SERVICE, which your'e supposed to do every year, and which exhibits a level of inaccuracy which wouldn't be acceptable in a quartz watch you got free in a box of Cap'n Crunch. But the second hand moves smoothly instead of in one second jerks. Also, unlike the brilliantly accurate quartz watches, not everybody can afford a handmade Swiss automatic watch. (And most of those who could have better sense.)

Of course the first electronic watch I can remember, the Bulova Accurtron, was advertised on TV as "Accurate to a minute a month." They gave close-up views of its second hand moving in one second ticks, touted as evidence of its unparalleled precision and accuracy. Back then not everybody could afford a watch whose second hand moved in one second ticks, so they were rare and desirable and worth the higher price.

Today any bozo can have a hyper-accurate wrist watch, assuming (s)he doesn't just rely on cell phones for time. We can also have a pocket GPS device that shows us where we are on a map, any time we need it, a technology which itself depends on accurate timekeeping. We need never know what it is to miss an appointment because our watch was off or because we didn't know where we were. (We do, but it doesn't need to happen.) It's easy to go about your business casually accepting these marvels of technology, never stopping to think that as recently as the years of my childhood a slow or stopped clock could cause a navigation error that might kill people, or might put trains or planes on collision courses-- and sometimes did.

Pot Pie

May. 5th, 2013 01:22 pm
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When I was in graduate school near Chicago, I lived on a little stipend from the University. They deposited my checks on Friday. That afternoon I'd go down to the bank and withdraw a little cash so that I'd be able to buy groceries for the weekend. The bank had one of these new-fangled ATM machines, so I didn't have to make it down there before the bank closed (which was 3:00 PM, by the way; we used to joke about "Banker's Hours.")

One Friday I got there at 4:30, shortly after the bank closed, with a long weekend ahead of me, and the ATM was broken.

Use the other ATM? There was only one. Go to another bank? They weren't networked. I was facing a long weekend with no food in the apartment and about two dollars in my pocket.

I could have charged some groceries on the credit card, right? After all, I'd had this credit card for years, paid it off on time, and hardly ever used it anyway. They kept increasing my credit limit a thousand here, a thousand there, until I had a five or six thousand dollar credit limit on the thing.

Unfortunately, in these ancient days, grocery stores DID NOT TAKE CREDIT CARDS. I had asked why, down in Chicago. I didn't bother to ask back home, because in those small towns everything seemed about ten years behind the curve; things weren't open on Sundays, most places didn't take credit cards, you just accepted that. But Chicago seemed more With It, Hip, and Groovy. You'd think I could charge some food.

The guy at the store told me it was against the law to charge groceries. Something about not encouraging the poor to go into debt, he told me. I never bothered to check to see if this was true. After all, this was Chicago, and someone tells you it's against the law you just automatically accept that. Anything you might reasonably want to do is illegal in Chicago. It's a rule of Nature.

It was frustrating. I had enough of a credit balance to buy a good used car, or maybe even a new one, but I couldn't buy a hamburger. I had no food and something like a buck seventy in cash to last me until the bank opened at 10:00 on Monday. What was I to do?

I went to the grocery store. I bought a loaf of white bread, a dozen large eggs, and as a treat for my Sunday dinner I splurged on a Banquet chicken pot pie for 35 cents. I never liked those, and there isn't much to like; a tiny pie full of chicken gravy with a few peas in there, maybe a carrot cube, and enough chicken to show in a laboratory analysis. But when I had nothing else, it was mighty good.

I made it through the weekend, obviously

Since that time I picked up one of those little pot pies from time to time, in memory of the Busted ATM Weekend. I'm glad I did, because eventually I grabbed a Marie Calendar's instead of Banquet, and the Marie Calendar's are good! The creamy mushroom chicken is especially nice, and the spilled over gravy on the plate is Feline Contingent Approved.
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One of the little towns I grew up in had a Detroit Edison office. You'd go in there and hand the man behind the counter your busted toaster; a week or two later you'd go and pick it up again, perfectly repaired. You'd go in and hand him your burned-out light bulbs; he'd hand you new ones, right on the spot. The charge for all of this was exactly nothing.

Oh, you paid all right, on your electric bill. But repairs or replacements on small electric items was included at no extra charge, no pun intended.

I suppose the practice of repairing small appliances for free went away in the 70s, when appliances became cheap in price and construction, too cheap to be worth fixing, and most of them were stamped or glued together to be maintenance-proof anyway. I do remember that free light bulbs went on for a while until an Honest Businessman sued Edison for anti-competitive practices because he couldn't make his penny of profit on a light bulb when Edison gave them away for free. I suppose he has a point- it's hard to compete with free. Too bad he had to spoil it for everyone else so he could get his penny, though. Honest Businessman!

Even then it struck me as strange that Edison would have an office in that little town just to fix toasters and hand out free light bulbs. But thinking back, I realize the main reason they had an office was to collect electric bill payments, in cash.

My family was on the cutting edge of technology. Dad paid our bills with a household checkbook. I grew up thinking that was the nature of the world. You paid things The Check is In the Mail way, and people always had. Not so.

Apparently the household checkbook wasn't all that common until the 1960s. Even when I was a kid, a lot folks, old-timers mainly, did everything in cash. They would go to the gas company or electric company office in town. Or if there was no office, they could pay at some of the banks; I remember seeing signs in the banks that they accepted payments for this or the other utility, loan company, and so on.

I was thinking about that today when I was writing some checks to pay my property taxes on the vacant lots next to the house. I am almost up to Check Number 4000. I've written a lot of checks in my career here. But now I write probably one or two a month, no more than that. Instead, I pay via my bank online. They will transfer the funds electronically or, for the real hold-outs, print a check and mail it for me. But there are some people I only pay once, or once in a great while. It's not worth it to me to enter their information into the system. For these people, I still write a check and send it Snail Mail.

With the death spiral of the Post Office, I may soon not be sending anyone any checks at all. I daresay many, perhaps even most, of the people around this country today never wrote a check and never will.

It's surprising, when I think of it, that something that seems to have been an eternal and indispensable feature of the universe was just a blink in history's eye.

Noon

Sep. 19th, 2011 05:55 pm
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In Grandfather's town you carried
a spark of time on your wrist
through a wilderness of trackless hours.

Lit from the kitchen clock
in the predawn darkness,
before work,

Setting hands, twisting the knob,
to wind the dime-store watch,
Finger and thumb with special ridges
Of callus, from decades against sharp edges
and the resistance of springs.

At noon each day the tornado siren wailed
And 532 sets of fingers
moved to reset 532 drifting watches
To realign another day
With eternity.
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The IBM PC was beneath "Greg." The mapping software would only work properly on a serious machine, like the DEC minicumputer or the Sparc Stations. Still, we had to try to get part of the software to run on the wretched PC because the customers, the users, kept asking for it.

Greg didn't have much use for users. That included me, the sole survivor of the original branch of the company, the one that had used our software to make maps for the industry rather than trying to sell the software itself. Still, I was useful enough. I could try some damfool user move like crashing the system by using a contour interval of 0.00001. ("It was a triple integral of the vertical component of the magnetic field, and the whole data range was only plus or minus 0.003! How could I know it was gonna crash the system?") Annoying, but better that I do it than that one of the paying customers did.

I rose a bit in his estimation, though, when one of the PCs-- one of the GOOD ones, the PC-AT, with the faster processor and the big hard disc-- ate itself. It needed a new hard drive. I told Greg I thought I could replace it for less than the $600 that IBM was going to charge us. Not only that, I pulled it off.

And not only THAT, but by paying $300 for a new drive and a RLL controller card to operate it (IDE, with the drive electronics on the disc drive itself, was still years away) gave us a hard drive of 40 MB, twice the original capacity. We had no idea what we were going to do with all that space. I was a hero. I actually knew something about computers.

Then, two days later, I shot myself down again.

I was rummaging around for a calculator. "You know, they ought to build calculators into these desktop computers."

"What, build a calculator into the keyboard?" Which was not such a bad idea, actually. A year or so later those showed up on the market, and you could buy them for several years. Maybe you still can.

"No, as software. With a calculator display right on the monitor. I'm sitting here looking for a calculator and I've got an IBM PC-AT that can do twelve thousand arithmetic calculations per second, and I can't get it to divide three by seventeen. It's frustrating. They should have a calculator program that just pops up when you need it. Multitasking on the desktop computer, or something like that."

Greg snorted. "Do you have any idea how hard that would be to do? And for what? To use a five thousand dollar computer to take the place of a fifty buck calculator."

"I don't care. They should do it."

"No, they shouldn't, and they never will. That's just a silly idea." And Greg walked away, shaking his head and chuckling about how naive I was.
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I collect radios. I spend a lot of time "listening to static," as Teph so charmingly puts it.

A few weeks ago I came across a Panasonic set. A nice transistor radio with good sound, it is nevertheless far less capable than any of the more modern digital sets I already have. Three bands, AM, FM, and shortwave. A dial with a needle, no clock (thank goodness!) and no digital frequency display or digital anything.

It is newly made, but so 1966. It even comes in a cut-away case, made so you can operate the radio while it stays inside its case, the way all transistor radios did back then.

Well, I think I may have found why I had to have this thing. It's so like a radio my father had, that fascinated me as a kid. Here, take a look at them:

http://www.radiomuseum.org/r/channel_6519.html

http://cgi.ebay.com/PANASONIC-RF-562D-AM-FM-SW-Shortwave-Transistor-Radio-/140524431938#ht_2663wt_901

They're not at all the same, but there's more than a little resemblance.

The funny thing was, my dad never seemed to use this radio, or like it much.

It was a present from "his" employees when he left one school district to take over another. They picked it out for him because it receives aircraft band signals, and he had a pilot's license. It's the thought that counts, of course, but what it amounted to was a bulky radio that specialized in picking up one band that only had morse code beacons on it, and another that wouldn't pick up anything much unless you lived right next door to the control tower of a major airport.

Still, I was fascinated with this set, because it told me for the first time that there were radio signals out there other than plain old medium wave broadcast radio.

So I suppose that Channel Master portable was where all my listening to static started. And I suppose its resemblance to that old radio, that I had forgotten until I stumbled upon it online, is why I had to buy the Panasonic. The mind is a murky place, sometimes.

Pumping Air

Apr. 2nd, 2011 02:16 pm
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Some time ago I was visiting a friend, elsewhere in a drier part of the country. I took a sip of the tapwater. "It tastes like it's chlorinated," I said.

"It is. Community water system."

Which kind of boggled me, because this was something like six miles from the nearest town. I figured most people in this country, who are urban, wouldn't know the joys of private home water systems, but if public water is reaching miles and miles from town maybe private home water systems are even rarer than I had thought.

Not here, in the State that Squishes Wherever you Step On It. Public systems go by the name of City Water, and we have laws banning private wells within the reach of such a system. But outside the city limits, pretty much all the houses have private wells. Usually these only go down forty or fifty feet; in many places, ten would be enough, if you weren't worried about that other feature of rural life, the Septic Tank.

Of course the wells come with associated water systems. Over the years I've become acquainted with four such systems. (And there's never a GOOD reason to become acquainted with one.)

There are other kinds, but the ones I've worked with all work in this wise: You have an electric centrifugal pump, which is Hardware Store for "Overwhelming amounts of electricity will move water, no matter how crudely that electricity is applied." Next to the pump is a pressure tank that contains water oh, about halfway up, air above that. Pump forces water into the bottom of the tank. Remember, liquids don't compress, but the air does. The compressed air above the water provides the "spring power" to push the water out again, and around the house wherever you need it.

Since the 1970s most of these have been bladder tanks, where the air is contained in a heavy-duty rubber balloon. Unfortunately, Ugly House is just old enough that they didn't have bladder tanks when it was built. It's got a plain old galvanized steel tank, which means that every couple years I have to pump air back into it. As the air goes away, that compressed air "spring" gets smaller and smaller, until eventually the pump is cycling off two or three times providing the amount of water you need to fill a coffee pot. You have to get more air into that tank, to return the pump to normal, longer cycles, or you're gonna be crawling under the house to pump more air into the tank AND to install the shiny new water pump you bought because you were idiot enough to burn up the old one.

So unfortunately, I have to pump air into my pressure tank every now and then. Doubly unfortunately, it is in the crawlspace under the far back corner of the house. Through the hole in the one concrete foundation wall that is small enough it almost pins me when I crawl through, around the corner, and then through the smaller hole that DOES pin me. At least I didn't wedge this time, like I did the last time I did this, when I weighed a hundred pounds more.

Triply unfortunately, creatures that crawl have taken the word "crawlspace" as a hint. I don't mind the garter snake I encountered down there once; go forth, multiply, eat lots of bugs and mice, and more power to you. I didn't get the snake fear when they passed out my instinct kit. Unfortunately I DID get the Spider Fear in double measure.

So let's do a checklist here; confined spaces, claustrophobia, heavy exertion in poor ventilation, loose fiberglass insulation everywhere, an electric air pump in direct confrontation with a water tank attached to a well that's the best earth ground in the world. And when things seemed to be pretty much under control... of course...

SPIDERS.

Well, OK, it was just a symbolic spider, one of the little tiny jumping spiders that are almost cute. But at that point I decided that yes, I can't tell how much air I got into the tank but it is ENOUGH, dammit, and I'm going home.

I am out now, and washing the fiberglass dust out of the jeans and jacket I wore down there. It will probably be two or three years before I have to do this again, by which time I will probably have forgotten enough about what that crawlspace is like to be willing to go down into it again.
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I've been reading here and there about radio stations losing money, and what they're trying to do to fix that.

The big problem, if you care to call it that, is competition from digital audio; MP3 players and online streaming music. There are all sorts of technological solutions proposed, from streaming your radio station online yourself, to trying to get a law requiring people to build radio receivers into all cell phones-- bad luck on that one, guys. If someone has all the streaming radio in the world on their smart phones, do you think they're going to listen to YOU instead? Especially when you're Satellite Feed No. 812 of Boring New York Try-to Shock Jock, or Satellite Feed No. 3,017 of Right Wing Whacko Bully with a Microphone. Why would they go out of their way to listen to you? Why would anybody?

Yet I think radio has an important place in the world. The power does go out sometimes- winter storms, or Heaven forbid troubles like Japan is having right now- and then the streaming computer radio dies too. Ten bucks will get you a decent transistor radio; Sony still makes a pretty good AM-FM pocket set. At night that will pull in news and emergency information from hundreds of miles away, if not a thousand or more. And you can use it to listen to the ball game when you're out back in the summer sipping a cold one.

In my crackpot opinion the biggest problem with radio is (a) we really have too many signals in our major markets, in the US anyway, and (b) everyone is going after the major market and the major marketing demographics. There are all sorts of small markets that could support a small audience and get rich doing so. But everything has been market-analyzed to death, with all the radio stations fighting for crumbs of that one big pie, ignoring the tens of thousands of small yet tasty pies sitting untouched all around.

Our local radio station is a good example of that. Cheap, poorly produced, corny, with the local high school kids coming on to sing to promote their musical play that's on in the High School Auditorium this evening. And Friday they have the public school football game at 7:00, the Catholic school football game on tape delay- next week it's the other way around.

And they make a good living. Not only that, they matter to this town. Everybody knows them. Everybody needs the information they give.

It's not a bad life, Radio Guys. Think about it.
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For those who have never done it, here is how to operate a 1970 car radio.

It has a horizontal dial with one knob to the left, another to the right, and five buttons in a row beneath. Turn the left knob for on, off, and volume. Turn the right to tune. Push one of the five buttons to go to a preset station.

Done. Whatever you could say against an AM-only car radio (and there is a LOT) there's never been a "sound system" with better ergonomics. Notably, it's dead easy to run the thing without even looking at it. That's a nice safety feature. I wish those who make car radios today would give more thought to the fact that when you're listening to the thing you're DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD and if you take your eyes off the road for too long YOU WILL DIE.

What brought this to mind is my latest portable radio, which has something like six different ways to tune. That's four more than I will ever use.

There's the standard tuning knob.

Their is their "Easy Tuning System," which I admit is pretty cool; it scans the entire band and registers all listenable signals. Through some digital signal processing magic, it is even pretty good at recognizing what is a signal and what isn't. Then when you turn the tuning knob, it goes directly station to station, skipping the dead space between.

This is somehow different from the auto memory storage, which does much the same thing but into banks of preset memories accessible via pushbutton. There's an alternate version of this, active on the shortwave bands, which scans for new signals and stores them without erasing the ones you have stored previously.

Or you can enter frequencies into memory manually. You can use the keyboard to enter a frequency directly. You can set the radio to scanning the band and playing a few seconds of each station it encounters, and at any point you can stop it, add it to your "ETS" register, or enter it into one of the pushbutton memories.

Whichever way you do it, though, you still have more the illusion of choice than real choice.

I call this the Wal-Mart Effect because that's where I first noticed it. Our Wal-Mart has, for example, a whole wall of yogurt. That seems to give you a lot of choice. But look at it and you start to realize that you have 20 brands of strawberry, 20 of blueberry, and 20 of vanilla. Kind of like politics; same crap, different label.

Up here Out in the Pickers, as we are, we're in radio relay country. So we get a lot of stations, but it's three repeaters of the rock station, three of the country station, six of the insipid right-wing JAYZUSS!!! station (although those might actually be different stations; it's really hard to tell them apart), four Bob and Tom, a Howard Stern or two, and a couple dozen Rush Limbaugh. That is one way in which 1970 radio actually was better. It still followed Stugeon's Law- 90% of everything is crap- but at least it wasn't the exact same crap, synchronized on every station you could hear.

But let it pass.

I was amused, though, that my little pocket AM-FM-shortwave set has as many memories as it does. It has 100 memories for AM alone.

Think on that. 100 memories in a band that has only 120 channels to begin with. If they'd only included a few more, I could tune through every single frequency in the band by going memory to memory to memory-- which, I'm sure you'll agree, has to be far more efficient than doing the same thing by, oh, twisting a big knob or something.

Stand By

Oct. 24th, 2010 11:23 am
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I never got along with ham radio operators.

Since I was a teenager I've listened to shortwave radio broadcasts-- also far-away AM radio broadcasts at night, what [personal profile] tephra or [livejournal.com profile] tephralynn calls "Listening to Static." There's no real reason to do it any more; you can get all the foreign information you want, direct from foreign sources, over the Internet. (Until the Tea Party brings the McCarthy Era back and starts protecting you from truths they want to pretend don't exist.) Back then, though, if you wanted the foreign perspective on the news, uncensored, you got a shortwave receiver.

Story! )
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A performance car should roar. It may growl or rumble. If expensive enough, a purrrrr and quiet self-assurance are acceptable.

It should not rattle. It should not buzz. And under NO circumstances should it make a high-pitched tooting noise reminiscent of a goose with diarrhea.

That is all.

Boxtops

Oct. 16th, 2010 12:06 pm
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Somewhere in my vast DeadJournal Bookshelf of Journals about Nothing, I stated their mission. In fact, I have them because I simply enjoy the act of sliding the point of a fountain pen across good paper, and so I have to come up with something to do while I'm doing that. That's the sad, futile truth of it all.

But my DeadJournal's other purpose is to document the obscure and forgotten-- such as the fact that the most common milk container of my childhood was the half-gallon paper carton. Or the way light switches worked. (Usually as the common flip switch of today, but in really old houses you'd come across pushbutton switches- on top, a big black button with a white dot in the middle, and on bottom a plain black one. Push 'em in and with a loud CLICK they'd turn the lights on or off. And there was one house I lived in that was built in 1954 and had these Atomic Age little knobs you'd have to turn. No, not dimmers; just left off, right on. They were internally illuminated and kind of streamlined, and only served to slow down the act of turning the lights on and off. But after a couple of months in that house you'd just hook a finger over them and spin them coming into or out of a room, fast as any other switch, without thinking about it.)

Think about it. In the future they'll know all about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's affair with Marylin Monroe, and the Vast Conspiracy of the Kennedy Assassination, whether or not any of what the know is true. But they won't know about PF Flyers or that Oxydol laundry detergent was white with green flecks in it.

So was born Old Fart Theater, wherein I will bore the one or two people who actually look at these entries with details of Deserves To Be Forgotten History, and how I walked thirty miles through deep snow uphill both ways to get to the computer bunker to submit my pack of punch cards to the Computer Acolytes. But we were GLAD to have our punch cards. We were THANKFUL. Because we knew there were people worse off than us who didn't have punch cards at all!

So what about boxtops?

In 1962 or so there was hardly a breakfast cereal that wasn't offering some toy or other in return for sending boxtops through the mail. The deal would be something like $1.25 and one boxtop, or 25 cents and three boxtops, to some address, and they'd mail you a toy in return.

I can remember two toys I got that way. One was a fairly large F-100 fighter plane toy that had a little spring gun in its nose to fire plastic darts; the extra darts snapped into racks under the wings, where the real plane carried rockets or bombs. It was molded in heavy mottled gray flexible plastic that was meant to be silver. A pretty cool toy for what it cost.

The other was a red plastic race car that had a rubber band powered propeller. Wind the prop up, let it spin, and off the car would go. The cool thing was that you could turn it upside down take the wheels off, take the snap-on driver's head off the top and put it on the bottom, and it became a propeller driven bathtub boat.

Of course it all went through the US Mail, because we had nothing else. And it always went to the other guy in town who had my name before he turned it around and sent it on to me. The postman (and they were all men) never read the actual addresses, he just knew where everyone in town lived. That was common in those tiny rural towns at that time too.

You sent actual money through the mail for this stuff. Credit cards? What's a credit card? Most private citizens didn't even have checking accounts back then.

Of course this sort of thing wasn't just for kids. Raleigh Cigarettes offered coupons on each pack you'd save up and send in for various prizes, if you lived long enough. Betty Crocker had coupons for different housewares. And of course S&H Green Stamps was the granddaddy of them all.

(to the tune of Greensleeves)
"Green stamps were all she gave
Green stamps were all I took
Green stamps that I could save
And I pasted them all in my Green Stamps Book."

And pasted and pasted and PASTED, every time Mom came back from the grocery store. Eventually we'd get enough Green Stamps for something or other. I presume you could mail them in, but as I remember it we'd actually gather up our sack of completed Green Stamp Books and go off to a department store in The City, where off in a quiet corner they had a room full of things you could get with your stamps.

We ate off plates we got that way, and lit the living room with lamps we got that way, for about 20 years. Wasn't the best quality stuff, but it wasn't throw away quality either.

About the only way you're going to run into references to that culture of boxtops, or coupons, or trading stamps, and the prizes you'd get for them, is the Green Stamps song I quoted above. I still hear that on the radio every once in a while.

And then there's the Rocky and Bullwinkle episode where Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale have a plot to destroy the American economy by counterfeiting boxtops. That one probably goes over the head of any modern viewer.

But you know what? It would have worked.

Blinkers

Oct. 9th, 2010 02:54 pm
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As I understand it, the sound of a car's turn signals is that of an electomechanical relay. Current flows through, heats a coil, metal expands, TICK, a leaf switch pops off its contact. The coil cooks, metal contracts, TOCK, the leaf switch snaps back down where it was, and the light comes on again.

So why do car manufacturers use such a piece of vacuum tube cleverness in modern cars? The answer is, at least usually they don't. Turn signals tick-tock because people expect that noise when the turn signal is operating. The sound no more signifies the presence of an actual electric relay than the kaKLICK-whirrr..rrRRRrrr..rrrriCK! sound a cell phone makes when it takes a picture signifies the presence of a folding mirror, focal plane shutter, and automatic winder for 35mm film. But people expect those sounds when you activate the machine, so the manufacturers provide an electronic noisemaker to make them.

Esmerelda, the Mustang (Esmerelda was beloved by Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, so calling her that tells you what I think of my physical beauty) is about as retro a car as has been made in the past ten years, but even she has the electronic noisemaker instead of the real thing. I found this out by practical experiment.

You see, Esperelda also has the nag chimes typical of all American cars (dagnappit). She bong bong bongs at me to fasten my seat belt. I believe in seat belts, but I don't wear one when I'm backing out of something, because it's too hard to turn around and look behind me with the seat belt on.

I'm also in the habit of having the turn signal that's on the car's outermost rear corner blinking away as I back out of a parking space. That way I have a flashing light out there, and if I didn't see some other car, maybe its driver will see me. An easy precaution to take, right?

Well, when I'm backing out of a parking space with my seat belt unbuckled and the turn signal going, Esmerelda is faced with a dilemma. She needs to tick-tock at me for the turn signal and Bong bong bong at me to nag me about the seat belt. But her noisemaker is single channel-- it can, apparently, only make one of those sounds at a time.

So she bongs at me for about ten seconds, as the turn signal flashes silently, and only then starts in with the turn signal noise. Busted!

January 2015

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