Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hurry, Butter, Hurry

Captain Girlfriend and I were at the Great Eastern States Exposition ("The Big E") this past weekend, fascinated by all the 4-H and Future Farmers of America exhibits. Somehow in the middle of the pigs and the cows and the sheep and the horses, the conversation turned to butter.  Specifically, the conversation was about making butter from cream. Captain Girlfriend had *never* made butter in her life.

It turns out The Captain never had a kindergarten teacher like Mrs. Mueller -  -  *my* kindergarten teacher. Every spring, Mrs. Mueller would have a butter-making party for her students and their parents. She would fill up empty peanut butter jars with heavy cream and then pass them around a chair circle. The kids and the parents would take turns shaking the jars three times, while saying "Hurry, butter, hurry!" It was a magic moment when one of the kids could not shake the cream any more, because the cream had suddenly turned into butter!

With The Captain's unfortunate revelation about her childhood deprivation, I decided it was time someone gave her the opportunity to experience the wonder that is butter-making. We stopped at a Super Target grocery store, purchased a small container of heavy cream, and headed for The Captain's house.

Like mostly everything else, butter making is more exciting when you know the science behind it. Back when I was working on my Eagle Scout badge, I had the opportunity to study for the Dairying merit badge - - which gave me a whole bunch of knowledge about dairy products that I've never had the chance to apply in daily life - - until NOW, of course.

Here are some basics about dairy: milk is mostly water, with some proteins and fats. Cream is also mostly water, with lots of fats and a few proteins. Proteins are long, stretchy molecules that form most of the bubbles you see in food - - things like milk shakes, meringue, and heads on beer are protein bubbles. Proteins also let fats emulsify in water, which is why homogenized milk doesn't usually have clumps of fat floating around - - the proteins are helping the fats and the water mingle.

More science in a second - let's do a how-to on home butter making. Here are the tools and the ingredients:

You'll need a clean jar with a tight seal (like a Ball canning jar), some heavy whipping cream, and some ordinary table salt.

Pour the heavy cream into the jar until the jar is slightly more than halfway full.

As you see in the picture, this level is just about perfect. Make sure the lid is on tight for this next part, because we're going to start shaking the cream.

Don't shake continuously - we're shaking the cream to break the proteins away from the fats, so we need to give the two types of molecules a chance to clump together in the mixture.

As the cream builds up the foaminess from the shaking, the bubbles remove the protein from the mixture. What's left in the liquid part is mostly blobs of fat floating in water. The blobs of fat start attaching themselves to other blobs of fat that they bump into in the shaken solution. The proteins, already removed from the liquid, can't keep the fat molecules apart anymore, so....

Clumps of fat start connecting with each other, until there is just one huge clump of fat and a small solution of water and the proteins that had formed the bubbles when the fat was once emulsified in the cream. Ta-dah! Butter!

It's a bit of a wet, soggy butter because the store-bought heavy cream wasn't as heavy as it needed to be for super-quality butter. But this soft butter is quite adequate.

This type of butter is known as "Sweet Butter" by the USDA, but my taste buds are more familiar with the regular store-brand butter sold in supermarkets. So, I add a few shakes of salt to equalize the taste for me.

The ultimate test: can it spread on a crumbly sourdough cracker? Oh yeah!

I get the feeling Captain Girlfriend won't be buying sticks of butter anytime soon. She now knows Mrs. Mueller's Sekrit Recipe. And you do, too!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The K-Mart Effect

I am a rules-based person, and I often try to convert my observations into independently confirmed laws of nature. The rules don't make much sense, but their effects are repeated in the real world enough times to make me feel like some kind of half-baked Isaac Newton.

One of my oldest rules concerns what I call "The K-Mart Effect." The rule gets that name because the effect was first observed in a K-Mart parking lot. Briefly stated, the effect follows a simple rule: "If you park a car in an empty parking lot, the next car will park as close as it can to your car."

Observe this example, noted at the Shirley, Massachusetts Town Hall parking lot just yesterday:

The driver of the first car at left parked far from many parking places that were closer to the town hall. The driver backed into the slot next to the parking lot's Island of Two Trees. Not more than 10 minutes later, a second car arrived, sweeping around the island, and pulling up directly parallel to the first car. There are at least a half-dozen spots closer to the front door of the town hall (out of sight, around the left corner of the building in the background) but it was imperative to the driver of the car at right to sidle up to the passenger side of the first car.

Maybe this was an isolated event for this parking lot, right? Let's repeat the experiment, this time with my Toyota Tacoma truck. I'll park THREE spaces from the town library (just outside the picture to the left).

... and not more than 30 seconds  elapse before a woman in a red sports car zips up so close to my passenger door, it's nearly impossible to get out from that side of my truck. Please note the EMPTY PARKING SPACES to the left (car's right) of the picture. That space is IMMEDIATELY next to the library. It's not a handicapped space, it's not blocked by anything, and it's actually as close as one can park to the library in this parking lot. WHY do people have to park ear-to-ear with cars in an otherwise empty lot?

My theory is that there is some sort of social capillary action that draws people in range of other people. They look for a community to join, and head for the most likely place for interaction. Maybe it's a pack instinct, or some kind of innate security about strength in numbers, or something else buried deep in our collective psyches. Whatever it is, it's annoying as hell.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Day the Space Age Didn't Start

September 20th, 1956 would have been the birthday of The Space Age, if not for a Presidential directive and a few pounds of sand.

Let's start a bit further back in history, because this story is mostly about, of all things, aerial surveillance and military intelligence. The 1940's ended with the Soviet Union exploding an atomic bomb, which took the United States and the rest of the world pretty much by surprise. The newly-elected President of 1953, Dwight Eisenhower, made it a top priority that the US government would no longer tolerate "surprises" in military intelligence. Ike demanded a clear picture of what the Soviets were up to: what their A-bomb inventory was, how many long-range bombers they had, that kind of thing. Congress, also appalled by the lack of strategic information, agreeed. Of course, this kind of information would require some sort of sophisticated aerial reconnaissance.

One of the most difficult problems in surveillance of another country by a military aircraft was that the act of overflight would, at least in the early 1950s, be considered an overt act of war. Sending USAF planes over the USSR would be the perfect trigger for the world's first nuclear exchange.

Eisenhower tried a radical diplomatic step to deflate the concerns about Soviet missile and bomber counting flights: he suggested that all nations adopt an “Open Skies" policy, where overflights by surveillance aircraft from other countries would be permitted over national boundaries. The Soviets rejected the proposal immediately, so Eisenhower was forced to come up with a sneakier way of taking pictures of Soviet airfields.

In 1955, Ike asked Dr. Edwin Land (yes, the Polaroid guy) to put together an intelligence subcommittee for the "President's Technological Capabilities Panel." This group would scope out any wacky, harebrained plots thought up by American scientists and engineers to reduce the provocative nature of the overflights. Land came up with an idea that the designs for a canceled Air Force spy plane, the CL-282, be transferred to the civilian Central Intelligence Agency.  Land convinced Eisenhower that the civilian Central Intelligence Agency, and not the United States Air Force, would provide pilots and operational support for any overflight missions, thus pre-empting the potentially catastrophic shoot-down of a military aircraft with a military pilot on-board. The CIA would then be in charge of reconnaissance operations with this new craft, renamed U-2, and civilian pilots would fly these spy planes on high-flying missions through Soviet airspace. With a fat, secret Congressional budget, the CIA built a handful of U-2 planes inside of a year.
Dr. Land's airplane: the U-2.

Only ten days after the U-2 plane became operational in mid-1956, President Eisenhower ordered the overflights to cease. Signal intercepts of Soviet radar stations indicated that the USSR was aware of the flights, and Eisenhower did not want to risk a shoot-down incident. Despite only flying a week and a half, the U-2 planes gave lots of tantalizing bits of information about airfields deep in the Soviet heartland. Ike needed another alternative to the U-2.

An obvious answer was a satellite, but Eisenhower still worried about the overflight by a spaceship (even one in orbit) as being an act of war. True, the flight would be unmanned, but the government division launching the rocket would be the US Army, led by an ex-Nazi rocket scientist with dirty hands.

Wernher von Braun, the Army's chief rocket designer, had quite a tainted past. He didn't begin his rocket career as a Nazi, but he certainly excelled in his craft during his tenure with them.

Amateur rocket societies flourished in Germany during the 1920’s and 1930’s, the largest of which was Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), or VfR. The rocket societies were not created for military research, but were social organizations for like-minded individuals who were interested in the exploration of space and the increase in scientific knowledge. Key German scientists and authors such as Hermann Oberth, Willy Ley, and Max Valier were early members --- so was von Braun.

Boys and their hobbies.
Wernher von Braun, at right, about 1932.

Wernher von Braun realized early on that rockets ran on funding almost as much as they did on fuel. Since rockets were not considered an effective military weapon, the Treaty of Versailles did not restrict the production of ballistic missiles. This omission proved endlessly fascinating to the German Army, who hired von Braun and his cohorts at VfR to build ever-increasing numbers of military rockets.

The German Army ordered the von Braun team  to create a rocket that would be able to carry a 100-kilogram explosive warhead a distance of 260 kilometers. Although too late to have an effect on the outcome of World War II, the von Braun A4 rocket (or V-2 as named by the Nazi hierarchy for “Reprisal Weapon-2”) delivered murderous damage to London and Antwerp at nearly four times the speed of sound. Rocket attacks from Germany killed more than 12,000 people and destroyed over 30,000 homes. Overlooked in the death toll are the fatalities of the 10,000 forced laborers and concentration camp inmates who worked on V-2 production at the Peenemünde and Nordhausen rocket facilities. Stationed in bombproof cave factories, many of the inmates died of pneumonia in the cold, damp working conditions.

Responsibility for these many deaths rested in no small part on the shoulders of von Braun and his staff. They realized their only hope in escaping war crimes charges would be in their ability to negotiate with the victors by trading technical information for their freedom.

The calculation was simple: if von Braun’s team surrendered to the Soviets, they'd face the wrath of a nation with 27 million war dead. The other choice was to bargain with the Americans, the fellow countrymen of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard. The von Braun team fled to the West, negotiating with their potential benefactors for a cave full of unused V-2 parts, milling machines, crates of technical documentation and engineering advice in exchange for political asylum. As the Germans had done back in the 1940's, the US Army put von Braun and his men to work, rebuilding V-2s and designing interregional ballastic missiles capable of carrying atomic bombs from border countries to downtown Moscow.

From the original V-2 came the Redstone and the Jupiter, suborbital missiles with more power than the original German model. In fact, it would take only a slight bit of tweaking (and funding) to get these new missiles to push a satellite into Earth orbit.

Once again, von Braun followed the research money to its source: in this case, the American taxpayers. Dr. von Braun’s public relations campaign had to move the popular culture away from the “mad scientist” stereotype imbued by earlier newspaper reporting of Robert Goddard’s Moon plans of the 1920s and replace those notions with the idea that space travel was not only practical, but imminent.
Dr. von B's PR campaign.

In 1952, Collier’s Magazine began publishing a series of articles written by von Braun and his colleagues, detailing the processes, potentials, and benefits of a manned space program. The magazine series, painstakingly illustrated with the cinematic realism of artist Chesley Bonestell, gave readers the impression that the government was already involved in building manned spacecraft, and that the only impediment to the conquest of space was additional government funding.

Dr. von Braun proved to be a master of Amercan public relations, eventually convincing Walt Disney to produce a series of TV features about "Man in Space" on Walt's "Disneyland"  series. Millions of Americans watched the  documentary-style programs, which reinforced the idea that America was on the threshold of conquering space.

"That's not my department, Walt,"
says Wernher von Braun.

President Eisenhower requested a print of the Disney program to screen at the Pentagon. However, he still was reluctant to rely on an ex-Nazi to experiment with world-girdling missiles over the Soviet Union. Ike proposed that the United States would orbit a scientific satellite during the International Geophysical Year of 1957. To avoid any semblance of military legacy from the former V-2 engineers, the President also designated the Navy's untested rocket, Vanguard, as the launch platform for the first satellite.

The President's Technological Capabilities Panel laid down the law to the Department of the Army: von Braun's team would in no way be allowed to launch anything into orbit. To make sure of this, the Army dispatched inspectors to Cape Canaveral to make sure there were no extra stages laying around to attach to the top of any Redstone or Jupiter missiles. The configuration of the 4th stage of the Army's Jupiter-C missile was loaded with sand, as extra ballast to prevent an "accidental" satellite.

The Jupiter-C, with its inert fourth stage
up on top.

So, on September 20th, 1956, the US Army launched a four-stage Jupiter missile with an inert top stage. The payload of 30 lbs of sand flew to an altitude of 680 miles at 16,000 mph, only to land in the South Atlantic, having never orbited the Earth. If the sand had been aluminum perchlorate rocket propellant, the Space Age would have begun that day.

The person aided most by this nearly orbital flight was the guy who designed rockets for the Soviet Union: Sergei Korolev. The Soviet Chief Designer made the case to the State Commission that their own plodding space program would need to be streamlined and funded better to put a small, simple satellite into orbit before the Americans. Korolev received permission from the State Commission to concentrate on launching a 184-lb satellite code-named "Object PS" and later renamed Sputnik. Sputnik would achieve orbit 13 months after the Jupiter-C launch.

The US Navy tried to launch their Vanguard about two months after Sputnik went into orbit. It didn't go too well.
Vanguard's peak altitude: 4 feet,
followed by a lot of exploding and burning.

After the Navy's very public failure, Eisenhower okayed von Braun's team to go ahead with an active fourth stage on their Jupiter missile, and a science satellite inside the nose of that top stage. Now renamed a Juno-I, the new launch vehicle hoisted the 30-lb payload into orbit on the last day of January, 1958. The Explorer 1 satellite was a success, sending back telemetry from high Earth orbit about a shell of radiation surrounding the planet. The shell, now called the Van Allen Belt, was named after a University of Iowa scientist who suggested putting a geiger counter inside the satellite.

America didn't get an actual spy satellite into orbit until the final weeks of the Eisenhower administration, but the resulting data told Ike (and select members of Congress) that there was no "bomber gap" with the Soviet Union. The Soviets didn't have much in the way of intercontinental military aircraft, so Congress didn't waste a lot of money building unnecessary anti-aircraft defense systems.

It's easy to be bothered by Eisenhower's intentional delay-of-game, but  two benefits came from America being second into orbit. First, the Soviet launch of Sputnik confirmed their tacit approval of the Open Skies policy, at least with spaceships in Earth orbit. Second, without the Soviets getting into orbit first, there would have been no ensuing Space Race, and consequently no Race to the Moon. I think we should count our blessings and move on.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Uh-huh. Rocket Science

Update: Rocket buddy Ralph Schiano pointed out that the SLS is going to use Space Shuttle Main Engines, fueled by liquid hydrogen for its first stage. Any impressions I made about NASA being smart by using kerosene, please ignore. LH2 is one of the quickest moves I could think of to make this project more expensive than it ever needed to be.

Yes, I really am a rocket scientist. I have a big piece of paper on my wall with fancy lettering that says so.

The first consequence of being a rocket scientist is that I have many friends who enjoy saying, "Let me ask my friend, Jim. He's a rocket scientist and he'd know." This seems to make a lot of people happy that they know at least one rocket scientist, so I'm fine with that.

The second consequence is that every time something happens in the news concerning rockets, spaceships, astronomy, or satellites, I am asked for an expert opinion as soon as such news appears on the internet. My typical response is "the who in the what what now?" because I'm usually busy doing something else. But then I have to read up about whatever the news was and concoct an opinion, because "I dunno" is usually an unsatisfactory answer for my friends.

Today's Hot Space News Topic concerned NASA's new proposed Space Launch System (SLS), the latest in a near decade-long series of futuristic launch vehicles designed to take astronauts and equipment into deep space. NASA held a press conference, announcing the new design that featured a fat kerosene-and-LOX main stage strapped with two Shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Here's a pretty artist's conception of the thing:

It looks like someone took an Apollo-Saturn V, removed the second stage, and bolted a pair of Shuttle SRBs to the stack. Wait a minute: if it already looked pretty much like a Saturn V, why would NASA bother with the SRBs? Why wouldn't they just build a newer Saturn V?

The answer is, of course, jobs, money, and politics. The New York Times estimates the cost of building two of these vehicles by 2021 would be about $62 billion That's a lot of Congressional money to kick around in the important districts of the House and Senate appropriation committee members. The primary assembly would be in Florida, the home state of former astronaut and current Senator Bill Nelson - - who also happens to be on the Budget Committee, the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the Committee on Finance. The solid rocket boosters, built by ATK, will be constructed in Utah, home of Senator Orrin Hatch. Hatch is the Ranking Minority Member of the Committee on Finance.

What's the big deal about having segmented solid rocket boosters on the SLS? They're an alternative propulsion system that isn't really needed. The SRBs provide extra lift to move the launch stack up from sea level, but that job could also be handled by making the main stage bigger, adding a second stage, or ratcheting the lift requirements of the launch vehicle down a bit. SRBs are built in segments - - as you'll recall, this segmentation proved to be quite a weakness in design for the astronauts onboard Challenger back in 1986. The SRBs are segmented so that they can be disassembled in Utah and shipped to Florida by rail - - that's the only reason for the segmentation. There are shorter, unsegmented solid boosters in production (Aerojet Corporation makes quite a few) but they aren't built in Senator Hatch's constituency.

Let's roll the clock back a bit and see how we wound up with this configuration. In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry because its thermal protection system was struck by foam and ice debris during launch. The reason for the debris impacts was because of the poor design of the Space Shuttle launch system. Prior to the Shuttle, manned launch vehicles never had their reentry surfaces exposed to any launch debris. Since there was no way to protect the Shuttle reentry system from impacts, and since NASA was committed by international agreement to complete construction of the International Space Station, President George W. Bush announced that the Shuttle fleet would be retired, following the completion of the ISS construction in 2010.

As an appeasement to both Nelson and Hatch, Bush okayed a new plan for NASA called "Project Constellation," where NASA would strive to land people on the Moon, Mars, and "Beyond," wherever that was. The new Constellation program designers concentrated on reusing as much Shuttle hardware as possible, modifying the external tank, the SRBs, and the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). This was supposed to cut down on development costs, because the technology was already in the factories and building this hardware should have been a snap.

Unfortunately, the reconfigurations didn't work, mostly due to a lack of funding by the government and a lack of foresight by NASA management. The first variety of new launch vehicles, known as Ares 1-X, was designed as a super-tall version of a single SRB, with a liquid-fueled second stage as an additional booster. A lack of budget money pushed the timeline of development back for the second stage, so NASA decided to attempt a flight of the Ares 1-X without a working second stage. The result was a disappointing suborbital launch of the Ares-1-X, coinciding with the cancellation of the entire program. Here's a pic I took of the pre-launch preparations for Ares 1-X, with the dummy second stage rising high above the old Shuttle gantry:

Ares 1-X, and the unflown Ares 1 were supposed to be the run-up to the big cargo-hauling ship of Constellation, the Ares V. Ares V was going to stretch out a Shuttle External Tank (ET) add a few SSMEs to burn the liquid hyrdogen (LH) in the ET, and two SRBs to carry the initial stack into space. The biggest problem with this arrangement is that the Ares V would continue the legacy of an LH launch fuel at sea level that plagued the Shuttle flights. Liquid hydrogen is extremely dangerous, and requires extremely low temperatures to be useful at ground level. Remember the spark generators at the base of the Space Shuttle, that would shoot a shower of pyrotechnics just before launch? Those spark generators were there to ignite any stray hydrogen at the launch tower, just so that the rocket ignition didn't detonate trapped hydrogen underneath the Shuttle. It's a really dangerous and complicated practice, and it buys little in the way of efficiencies for larger ships.

Ares V at left, Ares I on right

The new SLS system avoids LH as a sea-level fuel. Instead, the liquid fueled first stage runs on good old kerosene, the same fuel that powered the Saturn V's first stage. Kerosene is also the same fuel SpaceX is using in its deep space launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy will deliver only slightly more than 1/3 the payload of the SLS into low Earth orbit, or in other words, about 58 tons of payload. That doesn't seem to be too impressive, until you look at the cost of a Falcon Heavy - - the TOP price is scheduled for about $125 million per launch, about $31.775 BILLION cheaper than the expected SLS price tag per launch. The reason? SpaceX doesn't have to please the constituencies NASA must bow to in every price negotiation. SpaceX (and the other COTS companies) can press for cheaper prices, cheaper solutions, and simpler designs to get their product to market. Without facing competition, and being at the beck and call of irked Congressmen, NASA can't cut corners if it means trimming the fat. So, they'll continue with this $62 billion research project, maybe have one or two launches, then they'll declare success and mothball the vehicle. Don't worry, though - - its job will be completed by private companies with better control of their balance sheets.

Whew, that felt like a lot of spewing about rockets. Let me know if you have other questions about the SLS and I'll try and give you my bestest answer EVARRR in the Comments section.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Through the Per'lous Fight

Good Morning, Baltimore

We've all just been through the 9/11 tenth anniversary weekend, so there's probably quite a bit of patriotism fatigue this Tuesday night. September 13th, though, is the anniversary of another attack on America that we commemorate, but strangely do not remember the date.

198 years ago yesterday, a rocket ship named Erebus arrived in Baltimore Harbor.  No, they didn't have Space Shuttles back then - - it was a British ship of war full of projectiles called Congreve rockets, and they were the state-of-the-art in weaponry during the War of 1812.

Slightly more than a decade previously, the British had taken quite a pasting while battling the natives of Southwestern India. The Indian leader Tipu Sultan invested heavily in his countrymen's latest invention, an ironclad projectile filled with black powder. This first rocket weapon killed British soldiers more than two miles from the rockets' launch sites, and spread a great deal of terror among the Redcoats' rank-and-file.

The British, freaking out over rockets in India.

I mean, holy cow  - here comes a near-silent projectile at 300 mph that bursts into a fog of shrapnel in a 20-yard radius from the impact zone. That's pretty darned scary. The British did two sensible and typically British things: first, they got the hell out of range of Tipu Sultan's rockets, and then they went home to Blighty and built BETTER rockets.

The British Press had a field day with the British retreat.

The guy who built the better rocket was a fellow in the Royal Ordnance division named William Congreve. Congreve figured out how to replicate the Sultan's rocket bodies, but then also figured out a cleaner mix of black powder propellent. The Royal Ordnance metal works cranked out tens of thousands of missile bodies, and the Royal Navy prepared to take on both Napoleon and the puny Americans with these new weapons o' doom.

Congreve's rockets weighed about as much as a bowling ball, and were built with a cylindrical metal body and a pointy (or sometimes knobby) "warhead" section. The rocket bodies were strapped to wooden staves that acted similar to kite tails, stabilizing their flight trajectories and providing a launch platform when stuck in the ground.

Napoleonic WMD

I have no idea what "E" does.

The British also figured out a brilliant tactic in rocket warfare that Tipu Sultan had missed: put a lot of rockets on board a ship, and then drive that ship up and down the enemy's coastline, taking random potshots at beach towns and harbors. The enemy would be as terrorized as the Redcoats were in India a decade or so before.

The plan worked, especially in the British attacks on American cities and towns. Royal Navy sloops, converted into flattop barges called rocket ships, were towed all over the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. On September 9, 1813, the rocket ship Erebus shelled Alexandra, Virginia, during the land invasion of Washington, DC. Despite strong counterattacks by land-based American cannon batteries, the British managed to capture 22 prize ships in the Potomac River.

The following week, the Erebus joined several other ships in the attack on Baltimore Harbor. The main American defense of the harbor was a pretty substantial star-shaped redoubt called Fort McHenry. The fort's cannon ranges were slightly shy of the Congreve's 2 mile reach, but the cannons were more accurate at extreme range than the rockets - - especially if there were any winds, which tended to make the rockets act like badminton shuttlecocks turning into the wind.

The battle on the night of September 13th lasted all evening, with the British firing an estimated 3,000 rockets at the fort. The result? If you know the song, you already know the answer.

What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
’Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The British ceased their attack as dawn approached, and slid down the Chesapeake, away from an unconquered Baltimore.

And the flag? 100 years ago this week it was displayed in downtown Baltimore, and it looked like this:

The failed rocket attack on Ft. McHenry affected American military opinion on rockets being useless as weapons for more than 125 years. More about that when another significant anniversary pops up very soon. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Just realized it's been 10 years since I started playing the violin. I feel as though, after a whole decade,  I should be a better fiddle player, but I guess most people feel that way about their inadequacies playing their musical instruments.

After I turned 40 I decided I should branch out from my two long-time instruments of piano and guitar. So, I picked the violin because I knew almost nothing about how to play one, but I really liked the sound of a fiddle.

I found a music store near my house in Pennsylvania where they had violin tutors. The store owner paired me up with a Russian musician who taught at several prep schools on the Main Line. At my first lesson, the music teacher asked me if I owned a violin. I said no, I thought I'd wait and discuss it with people who knew about violins and would be able to recommend what the best kind of starter fiddle I should have.

The violin teacher closed the door to the practice room and handed me a business card. "You. Come to my house Saturday. I fix you up. Good price. Tell no one!" Then he handed me his violin and we began the first lesson.

As he suggested, I went to his house that Saturday and he led me to his basement workshop. He had dozens of violins in various states of repair hanging from the ceiling. He picked up a bright red violin. "This  - made by Chinese factory. Is firewood!" He dropped it on his workbench, and then sorted through a bunch of fiddles on a back wall. "This one - 300 years old. You can't afford it." My teacher brought out a black case and opened it up. "This one. Good sound, nice balance. Wood is really good. Made in the 1930s by Nazis. Play!" I picked up the Wehrmacht-era fiddle and ran the bow up the G scale. Really did sound nice. So now I owned a violin.

I played the violin for three years before I found out I preferred playing the fiddle. It's the same instrument, just played with a different attitude. I enjoyed fiddle playing with others, because playing ensemble keeps you honest about keeping up and playing the right notes at the right time.

When I moved into my house in Blackstone, I found out there were nearby fiddle classes in Rhode Island. I joined an intermediate group and went every week to clear my head and focus my fingers. It was fun, and I met a lot of similarly-inclined catgut scratchers who were very forgiving and quite entertaining.

Probably my favorite fiddle moment was being invited to play at a workshop with Jay Ungar and his wife Molly Mason. Jay is famous for his breathtaking song "Ashokan Farewell," which was used as the theme to Ken Burns' PBS show "The Civil War." It was one of my first fiddle tunes, and is still a favorite to play. You probably know the song, if not for the name, then for the tune. Here - allow yourself a few moments to become acquainted with this beautiful piece:

Jay and Molly were in Rhode Island, teaching a one-day seminar for anyone attending a music class in the state. Originally it was supposed to be for middle and high school students only, but when they came up short on the invite list, they added a few more slots for old-timers like me.

Here's a video of me, a few old codgers,  Jay and Molly, and a bunch of school kids sawing our way through one of Jay's other compositions, "The Lovers' Waltz." I think it all came out rather nice.

I'm still playing, but I need to practice more. Maybe after the Blue Cross gig finishes up, I'll take a few days and run through my repertoire.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bye Bye Borders

When I was growing up, my family rarely visited stores that sold books. We went to the library semi-weekly and were regular subscribers to the Readers' Digest Condensed Books series (a sort of bulk-rate way of keeping up with the best sellers that EVERYONE in North America read to keep pace with their neighbors in the literature world.)

The only books I can recall purchasing were those offered by the Scholastic Book Service, with offices listed on the back of each book as "New York, Toronto, London, and Sydney." The world-wide reach of SBS always indicated to me that English-speaking kids on the other side of the planet were also reading "Double Trouble for Rupert" and "Ghosts Who Went to School."

Once shopping malls became more common in the 60's, I began visiting bookstores like Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble. I also started traveling to the powerhouse booksellers of Manhattan, where publishing houses like Simon & Shuster actually owned their own stores! They'd even invite authors I'd heard of, like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, to sit at tables and sign their own works. It was an amazing world.

It wasn't until the final decade of the 20th Century that the Big Box bookstores started appearing in my neighborhood. First, Books-a-Million turned up in a renovated Wal-Mart, hawking oddball hardcovers in bulk. The books all seemed to be slightly dated, or misprinted, or generally unwanted castoffs of the other national chains. I'd visit several times, but never really found anything I'd want to cart home, or actually pay for.

Next, Barnes & Noble began building steroid-enhanced versions of its typical mall store - - the inventory tripled, or quadrupled; the aisles were furnished with oversized couches and reading lamps, and small coffee shops were erected in the corners of the cavernous stores. At first it seemed like a fantastic idea: if people were comfortable, maybe they'd buy more books! After a while, though, it became obvious that this layout was a huge mistake. People would camp out at the B&N store for hours, poring over bestsellers, taking notes while reading technical manuals, or guzzling coffee while pawing through an unpurchased magazine.

Then came Borders. Borders was an offshoot of Waldenbooks, and seemed to be a knockoff of the B&N Big Box model. The Borders configuration, though, was rapidly redesigned to be less "literate" and more gimmick-filled. Books took a back seat at Borders. The center shelves were filled with Harry Potter trivia games, Blu-Ray action movies, Twilight lunch boxes, and assorted magic kits from Klutz Press. Borders expanded the coffee shop, devoting up to 1/3 of the storefront to its Seattle's Best coffee shop. They also provided free Wi-Fi, so that legions of decaf-slurping campers could park themselves at tables for hours of web surfing, gratis.

A bookstore that didn't sell many books, and gave away electricity, air conditioning, computer connections, and chairs for free doesn't last long, and that's why Borders is shuttering its entire chain the Saturday after next.  I took a stroll through the Providence Place Mall Borders today before they sold everything back to the bare walls.

I'm not kidding about selling *everything* - - they've got price tags on the bookshelves, the cash register, the coffee urns, even the bathroom's towel dispensers. When this place is gone, there's going to be nothing in that building except maybe a bunch of bright yellow  "Going Out of Business" signs.

I am most tempted by these blond oak bookcases. They're down to $100/piece, some even as low as $50. If the rain keeps up this week, I may be the only bidder. Still pondering.

This is the kiosk that displays what's still available in the back room. I don't think I'd want an industrial sized freezer for $1500, though.

Not exactly sure how I could repurpose those sign holders (currently priced at a ridiculous $75). Maybe a reminder sign by the front door -- "Did You Feed Flash This Morning?"

They want  $600 for that cash register counter. Don't know how I'd wrestle it into the bed of my pickup truck.

Sic Transit Gloria Jeff. :(

Did they really need to invest in this much paper inventory in a world of GPS phones?

Shelves of all the little things that killed Borders.

If I do buy an Official Borders bookshelf, I want this one. I'll put all my space books on it.

Nothing held back! Make an offer on the carpet! The paper banners! The leftover cash register tape!

Requiem for a Barista station. $600 for a place to sort your Splenda packets.

The support structure for all the nonsense Borders thought people wanted.

What's left of Seattle's Best. That hutch on the left is fascinating, but $1200? No thanks.

The Children's section was tastefully decorated with whimsical space art of flying books and planets. Couldn't find a price on the artwork - - it seems to be glued to the walls.

If not for the impossibility of trying to detach this carpet from the cement floor, I wish I could take it home.

The ladder is $600, the rail the ladder rides on is also $600. Sorry, no. I would like the "Literature" signs, though.

A blur, and it'll be gone next week. The library is back to its 7-day-a-week schedule for September, though. Hooray!

Monday, September 5, 2011

As I was Saying...

Every boy who grew up in New Jersey during the 60's knew about two things: spaceship details and train operations. I've written a lot about the former, but my knowledge of the latter is almost as troubling. Railroads crisscrossed the Garden State and rumbled past everyone's back yards. Locomotives designed by Raymond Loewy back before the Second World War pulled passenger trains faster than anything traveling on the highway today, and coal car trains of 100+ hoppers slogged out of the Pocono Mountains to the power generating plants of the Raritan Valley. Boys all over the state would watch and chase and wave at the passing steel parades from intersections and overpasses.

One of the great advantages of my current gig in Providence is that I can once again watch the operations of a mighty freight / passenger road on the quarter-mile walk to work every morning. Thanks to an as-yet-unmetered stretch of public parking, I leave my pickup truck on the street next to the Northeast Corridor, the great artery of high-speed rail that links Boston and New York City to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC. The fastest train in America, the Amtrak Acela, buzzes through Providence morning, noon, and evenings along this route. The Acela is not as inspiring as the old Pennsylvania GG-1 engines that rolled here decades before, but they're a great sight as they start getting up to speed leaving the station.

It's not just the passenger trains that are fascinating. The road is used mostly by the Providence & Worcester Railroad, a surprising survivor past the days of Conrail and CSX. The P&W had an uncanny knack for growth during the 70's, and by avoiding federal aid also avoided federal bankruptcy procedures.

Providence was once an even larger railroad town than it is today. With inbound cargo from their own port and shipments from the port of Boston, a staggering amount of rail freight filled this town a century ago. The American Locomotive Company built more than 3,000 locomotives right where I park my pickup truck today, shipping their products as far west as Australia. The Woonasquatucket and Providence Rivers were bridged and paved over as a solid mass to allow for the many rail lines that needed to cross the rivers, creating what was called "the widest bridge in the world," spanning almost two miles of riverbed.

As rail traffic faded, Providence repurposed the former locomotive plants and removed the massive bridgeworks, revealing the two rivers for the first time in nearly a century. A new shopping mall straddled a small section of the Woonasquatucket River, and the Northeast Corridor was realigned to allow more of the river to see daylight.

Here are a few pictures of the Providence & Worcester railroad, above the restored Woonasquatucket River, and below the Providence Place Mall. The P&W train (pulled by two GP-38 engines) was paused, waiting for the afternoon Acela to clear the Providence station. You can see the engineer watching some mallards on the river.

I have this gig until the end of September. I'm probably going to take way too many pictures of every train I see. Expect more posts on the topic. Thank you for allowing this indulgence.

Friday, September 2, 2011


I wrote a super fantastic blog post about the Providence & Worcester railroad. You would have laughed, cried, and hugged your family if you had read it. So, I pressed "Preview" --- and the whole thing disappeared. I can't find a trace of the post anywhere. I can't write any more tonight, because I spent more than an hour writing the piece. Now I'm too tired to rethink what I typed. Lesson: type it all out in Notepad first, THEN post to the site. Amen.