Où sont les ordinateurs d'antan...

One of my ongoing projects has been to empty out my sweetie's spare room... basically, Sarah's roommate moved out a while back, and since then, it has been a pile of storage and languishing boxes. The big hulking presence in the room was a desktop computer--Sarah wrote her PhD thesis on this machine... whoah...

Windows me, check it... with Pentium II action... yeah!

[Yes, sweetie, I'm mocking you. Phhpftt!]

When we powered it up--hey, it still works!--we were amused by this warning message:

Trust EZ Antivirus

Your twelve month license subscription for this product expired 2729 days ago.

It will no longer operate.

If I'm doing my math right, this means that the software was installed circa April 2002. Whoah. So as a decrapification service, I took on the job of getting this computer out of the place. We removed any relevant files via USB stick... one amusement was that a 4 GB USB stick was larger than one of the two hard drives installed in the machine. There was also a case of, "Oh, hey, I didn't lose those photos! Cool!" I pulled the hard drives, to keep a copy of the data available in a small form factor.

Then it became a case of, "How do I get rid of this stuff?" Some online research and word of mouth turned up Earthworm Recycling--they are over in Somerville. They charge for drop-offs of items like CRT monitors and printers, but hey, it seems worthwhile. So one e-waste run later, which included a monitor, a 27" TV, a printer, CPU, two dead laptops, and two boxes of random electronic bits and pieces ...

The computer was gone! Earthworm is a pretty neat operation... they are only a reshipper--the actual electronics stripping is done somewhere out on 495. But they are very adamant on making sure the end use is actual recycling, as opposed to being set-on-fire-to-collect-metals in Nigeria or something like that. They charged $20 per CRT, and $10 for the printer... the rest was free.

And just to complete the recycling work... I broke down the computer desk into particle board pieces. I spent a bit of this weekend making a cheap-and-fast shelf for more of my tools. More recycling!

BTW--as a reward for reading this far, in case you don't know French, the title is meant to be "Where are the computers of yesteryear." My knowledge of this phrase is only from Catch 22... nothing more sophisticated than that, alas.


A Weekend on the Cape

For the past three years, my sweetie has been following a tradition: instead of getting stuff from her parents for her birthday, she asks for a "birthday experience." Her parents take her out on a nice weekend trip, typically involving staying at bed & breakfasts, outdoor photography, and nice dinners out. This year's much belated (January birthday!) experience was Cape Cod--and I was invited along!

We all piled into Sarah's folks' minivan, and drove down late on Friday night in a constant rain. However, Saturday's weather turned out beautifully--we had to check out the beach near our B&B (a house attached to An English Garden in Dennisport). Next up was Marconi Beach on Cape Cod National Seashore.

We then went on a a guided tour of a working Cape Cod Cranberry bog and farm. All of us are geeks (Sarah's dad is a retired GE steam turbine engineer), so we all had a fun time figuring out how things worked, checking out the machinery, and the irrigation system. It was really fun and informative... the farming couple were a great bunch of characters, with classic thick New England accents.

One thing I did not realize--that classic image you see of a flooded cranberry bog--is only one of two ways to harvest cranberries: that is a "wet harvest." You're unlikely to catch that event on a random visit--they have to move fast once they flood, so it's only happening one day out of 365 in a given bog. They flood the fields, have a machine that beats the cranberries off the plants, they float to the surface, and they gather them up and suck them out with a giant truck-mounted vacuum cleaner. Then they go straight to a processing plant--frozen, canned, craisins, etc.

However, the berries do not last once they have gotten soaked in a wet harvest. So any time you get a bag of fresh cranberries, they have been "dry harvested." It's a big machine that thrashes on the plants, and scoops them up:

We got to walk out on one of the bogs, which had already been harvested (dry picked). One surprise is that the "bog" is pretty dry.. the plants kinda "crunch" underfoot. Also, cranberry plants are low creeping vines--when they are harvesting, you have to carefully make sure you are driving your machine along the correct "nap" direction--or else you'll make a disastrous mess.

We swung up to Chatham Light... there's a sign on a pole that says: DANGER: ROUGH BAR, with a flashing yellow light:

Huh... the Hell's Angels are in town? Actually, it is an indicator of the condition of the inlet into the harbor, which is a break in the sand bar. The Coast Guard has established a rough bar advisory light, 62' above the water, on a skeleton tower near Chatham Light.... The light will be activated when the seas exceed 2' in height and are considered hazardous for small boats.

And yet more after that--Chatham Fish Pier--no fishing boats coming in that day, but still a great place to check out the working boats and the harbor seals. And take pictures.... my sweetie had her killer digital SLR out for this trip.

I also geeked out at this Coast Guard rescue boat--a newspaper article about these new boats circa 2008... they are made by SAFE Boats International--I think it is a "Full Cabin Archangel Class". Pretty neat technology... it has a flotation collar around the perimeter: "solid polyethylene (closed cell foam) collar encapsulated by a marinized polyurethane membrane with extreme rip-stop reinforcement."

The polyethylene foam for the SAFE Boats collar system was designed to insulate the Alaska oil-pipeline. It is inherently UV stable, impervious to petroleum products, harsh solvents and extreme weather conditions.

The Standard SAFE Boats collar system has been proven to stop small-arms fire from penetrating the hull. With the addition of ballistic material placed behind or actually laminated into the collar, it has been shown to withstand ammunition of up to 7.62 mm. A recent test was performed at a 3-meter stand off and with both hardball and JHP-rounds.

Day-umn. Yeah, they make military boats.

Wandering around Chatham, we ended up in a very touristy store: "Do not eat collectible rocks please. Adult supervision". Wow... Wonder how many times that has happened...

They also had a sign that you could buy, saying:


Um... yeah. I've never really associated Cape Cod with debauched Vegas-style excess. I'm imagining the regrets of the day after a weekend bender of upscale shopping and antiquing... "Holy s*** man, I was passed out on the floor of my bed and breakfast... and when I came to, I looked around, and there was all this furniture with lace all around me. What the f' did I do last night?"

And we wrapped up with a fantastic dinner at The Impudent Oyster in Chatham--strong recommend. As the Yelp review says, "This spot stands out among tedious Cape Cod dining options"--yep, true enough! Seafood on the Cape... in the off season, with fewer tourists, and the nights chilling down... very nice.

Sunday we drove out to Provincetown, and did the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum--"the tallest all-granite structure in the United States."

A great view from the top--with the telescope (or the super zoom lens on the DSLR), we could make out the Boston skyline!

An amusing story about the tower--it was patterned after Torre del Mangia in Tuscany. When they first proposed the design, they mocked it because, well, Boston already has a copy of the Torre del Mangia! ("...they say they've already got one...") It's a former firehouse, which is now the Pine Street Inn--and we saw it from I-93 on the drive back!

We headed down into P-Town proper, wandered around, and had lunch at The Lobster Pot--excellent Portuguese Kale Soup... and check out the lobster-shaped "you're-table's-ready" buzzers!

A lovely town... very much what I expected, but I mean that in a good way. Some annoyingly touristy crowded parts (still, this late in the season), but I'm guessing that's expected.

Also, I had a giggle at The Prince Albert Guest House. Yes, it's true, it could be meant entirely innocently. On the other hand, maybe not. [Link Not Safe for Work!]

I had to explain to my sweetie what that meaning of a Prince Albert was. I have to ask my guy friends--it's probably a normal reaction to protectively grab your boys when reading that Wikipedia article, right?

Anyway, we wrapped up the evening and headed back up to Boston that night. A fun weekend--thanks so much to Sarah's folks for putting all of that together!


Welcome to Charming.... uh... Lowell?

"Hey Sarah, we have a free weekend! What do you want to do?"

"Well, Saturday is Smithsonian Museum Day--free admission to museums around the country."

"Cool! What's around here in Massachusetts?"

[Option... option... option...]

"How about the American Textile History Museum in Lowell?"

"Sure! I've wanted to spend some time exploring Lowell for a while..."

[Questioning look]


So yes, that's how my sweetie and I spent a day in Lowell--one of the classic old mill towns on the Merrimack River. Yeah, I know, like I don't spend enough of my work life looking at old mill buildings.

We started out with lunch--based on a Yelp hit, we chose a Laotian restaurant. We had the Homemade sausages (sai oua mou)--yummy, followed by sweetened natural purple rice with creamy coconut sauce and egg custard for dessert. A tasty and neat dish.... purple rice... wacky...

Then on to the museum!

The first part of the museum seemed a bit slow, but there were some cool discoveries. For instance, I really had no idea what linen (and flax) were, as a textile. It turns out that the flax plant takes a ridiculous amount of preparation to turn it into spinnable fibers, which is why cotton took over the market in a huge way once mechanization was used to process fibers. Many things that you would expect in a textile museum... the history of Lowell (it was actually a planned community, based on its location at the confluence of two rivers), stories of the textile workers, and the way the industry went into decline in the 1920's, when the jobs started shifting to the South.

Another interesting bit of trivia--I've long known that purple was the royal color in ancient times, because it was so expensive to dye cloth that color. But I didn't know why: Tyrian purple required catching and killing thousands of murex snails to make one ounce of dye ("The dye substance consists of mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several medium-sized predatory sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean"). And it was valuable as a color until synthetic aniline dyes came along.

Some of the more interesting stuff--they have a large collection of operational machinery, and they sometimes operate them. They showed videos of the machines while working, with explanations.

Then they got into the high tech uses of fabric and textiles. Carbon fiber, protective suits for firefighters, body armor--stuff like that. Also--airbags!

As well as astronaut gloves. They had a pretty clever exhibit--they pulled a vacuum on the clear box (note the clear rod in the middle, which keeps it from collapsing). You can stick your hand into it, and note how difficult it is to move with an atmosphere of pressure across the fabric. There were two right-hand gloves in the exhibit.

"This glove is a bit smaller... it fits much better."

"Uh, like a glove, sweetie?"

Wow... apparently these astronaut gloves are well-articulated enough that you can flip someone off.

After the museum closed, we wandered around the canal walks around Lowell--a good portion of the town is a National Historic Park. All of the exhibits were closed by the time we were wandering, but it was a nice walk.... including the canals...

...and some pretty buildings. Man... Lowell had serious money back in the day.

A very nice time. During our walk, there was only a small percentage of obvious gentrifiers vs. locals of various sorts... not sure if this will change over time, but they are definitely pushing the high end condo market. Anyway, we definitely want to go back sometime to explore the park... however, it closes for the season in a few weeks (October 11th).


PSA: Nextbus

That is, in fact, a public service announcement, not Prostate-Specific Antigen. Although I'm moving towards the age where I'll need to get that checked.

Anyway: this announcement is for the website NextBus--they have installed GPS units in buses, so that they can post predicted wait times for a bus on a given line (as per their "about" page):

NextBus uses satellite technology and advanced computer modeling to track vehicles on their routes. Each vehicle is fitted with a satellite tracking system.

Taking into account the actual position of the buses, their intended stops, and the typical traffic patterns, NextBus can estimate vehicle arrivals with a high degree of accuracy. This estimate is updated constantly.

I remember seeing this system out a few years ago on MUNI buses out in the Bay Area... wow, so not dumb! I was pretty psyched to find out that it had come to the MBTA.

So how does it work? Um... mostly well. I've been using it on the 77 bus, and the Silver Line at the airport, with my BlackBerry web browser. You can hit update, and it corrects timing. But there are occasional snags... times bouncing back and forth, or going from "3 minutes" to "5 minutes" to "arriving" (a bit like the xkcd strip, "the author of the Windows file copy dialog visits some friends").

But hey... definitely much better than just sitting around feeling frustrated. Also, useful for figuring out, "Do I have a stupid-long wait, that I can use to run into CVS and pick something up?" Although I've been biking to work a lot lately (given the great weather), I'm glad that this service will be around come winter, when I'll be bus-bound a lot more.


The Phantom Subdivision

On the way to Tom and Julee's wedding this past weekend, I took the bus (a.k.a. Southwest Airlines)--because getting to Minneapolis for $10 ain't such a bad deal (frequent flyer miles). However, the routing to get there was BOS-STL-MSP (and MSP-MDW-BOS on the way home).

Anyway, on approach to land at STL, I saw a rather strange sight out my window. There were a set of streets, like a usual suburb, but no houses. Just grass and trees. And as you look closer, you can see grass growing in through the pavement cracks.

Whoah. Weird. I was wondering if this was a case of, "We're expanding the airport, so you people really don't want to live here now, right?" Or some eminent domain buyout.

First, I started exploring on Google Earth (once again, they can organize my world's information, baby). After some poking around, I found this subdivision on the west side of the airport.

And hey... check out a bit closer... there's actually one house left. Hey--it has a tennis court and a swimming pool, I think!

Hrm. A rather green and slimy swimming pool, though.

Anyway, it took a while to find out what the actual story is--it turns out that somebody else had the same question--with the following answers--it's the Carrollton subdivision in Bridgeton:

I'm a former resident, grew up there, lived there, and watched it get taken away. When i was a kid i remember the yellow ribbon campaign which had us to putting ribbons on our trees, doors, overhangs, etc to show our unity against what was called F4, the taking of Bridgeton for airport expansion. During the very late 90's and early 2000's the push came through and the airport finally bought the homes in the carollton subdivision. Very sad for all those who lived there, and even worse for those who DIDN'T get bought out, but were stuck in their unsellable homes.

Even more interesting... a former residence put up a blog documenting the demolition of the neighborhood:

This place was once a subdivision called Carrollton, located in Bridgeton, MO. It was one of the first planned communities in the U.S. that made sure to include green space, parks, schools, churches, and a community center in its development. Lambert International Airport made a proposal to the city of St. Louis to expand beyond its boundaries and build a new runway. This was pushed because, at the time, St. Louis was a hub for TWA. Despite the fledgling airline industry, the cause for eminent domain was issued in the direction of Bridgeton, including much of the city and all of the Carrollton subdivision. Although fought hard by community residents who formed a group called, “The Bridgeton Air Defense” and a number of legal battles that stretched decades, Lambert ultimately won and started taking homes as early as 1992. 2,000 structures, 2,000 parcels of land have become or will be soon property of Lambert International.

By the time I was old enough to realize that the concrete was creeping in to the edge of the subdivision where we lived… it was too late to care. Or, so I thought, until last year. Watching my own house go down, I realized that the remaining homes needed to be documented too. So, for the past year, I have been watching and photographing what little remains of the original 2,000. As of today, October 9th, 2007… only 56 houses are left.

Ah well. A sad story behind that one.


A Trip to Haverhill

Last week, I spent a Friday morning up in Haverhill, MA for work--it is one of those old industrial/mill towns on the Merrimack River, right near the New Hampshire border. According to Wikipedia, "was known for a time as the "Queen Shoe City of the World." The city was also known for the manufacture of hats." In addition, BirdJen used to work there, and live nearby. It has some chunks of nice downtown (including industrial buildings that were going to be turned into lofts... before the real estate market imploded... oops), but it appears that a chunk of it suffered through urban renewal. I've heard the wag, "... Europe had World War II to destroy its cities so they could rebuild them... the United States used urban renewal to destroy its cities instead.":

Unfortunately, during the 1950s-1970s, city leaders enthusiastically embraced the misguided concept of Urban Renewal, an approach since discredited, and received considerable federal funds used to demolish much of the north side of Merrimack Street, most of the Federal homes along Water Street (dating from the city's first hundred years of development), and throughout downtown. Many of the city's iconic buildings were lost, including the Oddfellows Hall, the Old City Hall, the Second Meetinghouse, the Pentucket Club, and the Old Library, among others.

As I first walked towards the building, I was disturbed to find a great big pool of blood on the sidewalk. With a trail of blood drop spatters leading away from it. Um... yikes? Maybe rat.... dog... person? Not sure. Given how close the town is to Lawrence (one of the sketchier towns in MA)...

Anyway, on to the building. It was a circa 1900's warehouse or mill building, right next to the Amtrak/Commuter Rail tracks. An interesting construction method--it is an all-cast in place reinforced concrete building (more on this later).

A nice view up from the roof. I have to say, I get to go to some neat places in my job.

This was followed by a nice lunch at Krueger Flatbread--thanks for the recommendation, Jen!

But one thing that was more interesting was after I went back to the office to do some research. One of the first hits when I Googled the name of the building was a Google book from 1918 that did a case study on this building: CONCRETE ENGINEERS' HANDBOOK: DATA FOR THE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION OF PLAIN AND REINFORCED CONCRETE STRUCTURES (Hool, Johnson, & Hollister). Pretty neat stuff--it turns out that this building was innovative for its time, when they were figuring out how to build with cast-in-place steel reinforced concrete (something that is essentially a solved problem in construction nowadays).

But the book has a bunch of very classic black-and-white drawings of the building I was looking at:

You could look at the drawing... look at the building... yep, that's the one!

Cool. I've said this before, but Google Books friggin' rocks. You can organize my world's information any day, baby ;).


Birthday Bonus Round

I know that I've covered my birthday to death already... but there were a few items that needed sharing.

First of all, Sarah's grandmother sent me a birthday card. Cool--thanks Gram!

Second, Sarah's parents sent me a birthday package. Among the contents: wine bottle stopper (cool!), a nice Hawaiian shirt (win!), and this adorable picture of my sweetie at age 9:

Besides, "Ohhhh, so cuute!", my reaction was, "Man... I'm lucky to find a gal of this caliber."


Anyway, the last item--a birthday card from Canada... from Dan & Daniel!

And the inside was a pop up card, "It's the Birthday Monster... Chomp Chomp Chomp!"

Heh... that made me smile in a big way. Thanks everyone!