Books: Gutenberg’s Apprentice

November 28, 2014

I have enjoyed several works of historical fiction lately, so when I was looking for a book recently at the library, and had no author or series in mind, I decided to just look for historical fiction. It’s easy to find books belonging to other genres, such as science fiction and mystery, because the spines of the books are marked with little stickers showing a spaceship or a question mark. (In the same manner, it’s easy to skip over the books marked with hearts or cowboy boots because I’m not interested in romances or westerns.)

But there’s no sticker for historical fiction. (What would one look like, anyway?) So I just walked along, running my eye over book titles, waiting for something to catch my eye. And what caught my eye was Gutenberg’s Apprentice. Now there’s a piece of history I knew little about. We learned in history class about the significance of Gutenberg’s development of movable type, and in Junior Achievement classes I have helped students get an idea of the huge gains in productivity that resulted. But I knew next to nothing about how the invention of the printing press actually came about.

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Gone and mostly forgotten

July 26, 2013

Every now and then someone from my generation makes a comment about phrases our children don’t really understand because they refer to antiquated technology. Why do we talk about “dialing” phone numbers, or “rolling down” a car window? How can someone sound like a broken record? What is a carbon copy?

What I hadn’t thought about until I saw this link on facebook was the sounds that went with much of that old technology. The sounds of a telephone dialing or someone typing on a manual typewriter don’t exactly bring back memories, but they stir some sense of belonging to an earlier time.

My parents weren’t coffee drinkers, so percolators weren’t part of my childhood. And I don’t remember ever staying up late enough to experience a TV station sign-off until I lived in Spain as a college student (and thought of it as a quaint feature of Spanish TV).

But I remember flashbulbs and cash registers (I even operated one at K-Mart, not as old as the one on the linked page, but even when I worked there it was a very old model). I certainly remember film projectors (watching a movie in school was a really special treat), but they weren’t as noisy as that one.

I had completely forgotten gas station driveway bells. But just the thought of them also reminds me of those old vending machines with knobs you pulled instead buttons to push.

Other websites have more examples. Do you remember calling to get the time? (Or the weather?) Dial-up internet isn’t from nearly as long ago, but in “internet time” it’s ancient.

Another website includes slide projectors. (A few months ago, my son told me he had to do a slideshow for school. My first thought was “They still have slide projectors?” before I realized he meant PowerPoint.)

Dot matrix printers, though … they’re actually still around. As recently as last August I used one regularly, and for all I know it’s still there at the company I no longer work for. It will be a while before those go the way of 8-track tapes and floppy disks.


Good new, bad news, or not news at all?

June 14, 2013

If you’re interested in manufacturing technology or the role of manufacturing in the economy, you may be interested in an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal, “Advanced Manufacturing: The New Industrial Revolution.” But what I found nearly as interesting as the article was (as is often the case) the different comments readers made about it.

The article itself is about how technology is changing the nature of the manufacturing process. Inexpensive electronic components make it possible for machines to monitor themselves, and humans located at remote locations can respond to problems that do arise. Additive manufacturing makes it possible to produce parts in shapes that were not feasible before, or that previously cost too much to be practical.

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A synthesized synthesizer

May 23, 2012

Some Google Doodles are better than others, but today’s is my favorite so far. It is a synthesizer in honor of what would have been Robert Moog‘s 78th birthday (he died in 2005). I’m sure it’s quite simplified in comparison with real synthesizers (doesn’t that sound a bit like an oxymoron?) today, but it’s certainly good enough to have fun playing around.

An article at the Christian Science Monitor explains how to play the Moog Doodle. I was very frustrated when I tried to play it earlier in the day, on a computer where I use Internet Explorer as my browser. I don’t know if the problem was IE, or the settings on my computer, but I couldn’t play a single note. All that happened when I clicked anywhere on the graphic was that it performed a search on “Bob Moog.”

Now I am using Firefox, and it works just fine. (It did take me a few moments to find the link to do the search on Bob Moog, which is to the right of the picture of the synthesizer.) Using the computer keyboard, rather than using the mouse to click on the synthesizer keyboard, makes it possible to play the notes more quickly. But it does require remembering what letters and numbers play what – or (as I do) just playing notes kind of at random.

It’s been a very long time (almost forty years) since I played around with a synthesizer. One of the choices in music class in sixth or seventh grade (I forget which) was a brief course in electronic music. We learned how the synthesizer worked, and got to try using it. I wasn’t interested enough in the subject to try to really understand what I was doing, but I liked being able to produce weird electronic noises.

Today I have a slightly better understanding of what the oscillator controls, filters, and envelope controls do. But I still am more inclined to just play around and enjoy the strange sounds I can make than try to methodically produce any particular kind of sound. If I had lots of time on my hands, maybe I’d try out some of the examples given in the CSM article.

But at heart I like words even better than music. So instead I’m writing a blog post.


Packaged air

April 26, 2012

As part of my job, I unpack anywhere from half a dozen to twenty or thirty packages a day. They range from small cartons that weigh a few ounces, to large servers and color printers that I can barely move without a hand truck. The one thing nearly all of them have in common is that they contain a lot of air.

In some cases it’s very obvious, like the boxes that contain memory sticks. The smallest carton our computer vendor uses is about 3/8 cu ft, and the memory stick comes in a package so small it often slips beneath one of the flaps of cardboard at the bottom. The rest of the box is filled with air pillows, which I slash open with a box cutter (and try not to slash my other hand in the process) before putting them in the plastics recycling bin.

I hadn’t realized it until today, but even those heavy printer packages, where nearly all the space is taken up by either the printer or foam packaging, contain quite a bit of air. It’s just hidden inside the foam. Polystyrene foam (the generic name of the material of which Styrofoam is one example) is over 90% air.

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Would you trust a robot to drive your car?

January 29, 2012

Science fiction writers have come up with a lot of interesting ideas about the future of transportation. Flying taxis have been around (in books) since at least 1940. When I was a child, we expected that there would actually be flying cars by the year 2000.

I vaguely remember reading Robert Heinlein’s short story “The Roads Must Roll,” in which the roads move instead of the people. There are strips moving at different speeds, ranging from 5 mph up to 100 mph. I’ve often thought of that story (without being able to remember most of the details) when attempting to merge into a lane of faster traffic.

There is the idea of teleporting, instantaneous transportation from one place to another. The best known example is “beaming” in Star Trek, but the idea goes back to at least 1933 (Frank K. Kelly).

The idea of cars that can drive themselves is hardly new either, but I don’t remember it showing up very often in the stories I have read. I suppose it just doesn’t make for much drama. I remember very much enjoying “Knight Rider” in the early 1980’s, but it was KITT’s personality rather than his (its?) technical capabilities that made the show interesting.

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User-friendly ketchup packets

September 19, 2011

You know those packets of ketchup that make such a mess if you don’t open them just right? Heinz has developed a new “dip and squeeze” container that holds three times as much ketchup and can be opened by peeling back the lid, just like the jelly containers you get in restaurants. (It can also be squeezed through the other end, for use on burgers.)

Sometimes packaging doesn’t matter a whole lot. I don’t care what kind of cup my yogurt comes in, I just want it to taste good. And some packaging innovations actually lose sales. Last year Frito-Lay had to switch back to the old Sun Chips bags because the new biodegradable bags were too noisy. But once in a while I will pay extra for the right packaging – such as cartons of orange juice with a twist-off lid, so I can shake the carton before pouring without having to worry about juice coming out the open end.

Since I don’t use ketchup on fries in the car, I’ve never had to resort to opening the packet with my teeth, as some drivers apparently do. (And it certainly never occurred to me to squirt the ketchup right into my mouth, then add fries.) I like the idea of the new container, both for its flexibility and its size (I’m not a big ketchup eater but I’d always need at least two or three packets if I used ketchup at all). But does the difficulty of opening the traditional ketchup packet really have much to do with the decline in French fry orders?

According to this article, the economy has a lot more to do with it. People buy the sandwich and beverage but skip the fries to save money. Other people skip the fries for health reasons (especially in the case of children, who are encouraged to an alternative such as apple slices instead). And people who place their orders based on what’s new and interesting don’t find much in the fries category.

This article blames the decline on quality – or rather, the lack thereof. I do remember that fries used to taste better, but I thought it was my taste that had changed. I don’t really mind that they don’t taste as good, because I know they’re not good for me, and it’s easier to forego something that doesn’t really taste all that great.

Of course, lousy fries just make ketchup all that more important. (Unless, of course, you’re one of those people – like my husband – who prefer to dip fries in mayo.)


Playing with wallpaper cleaner

May 23, 2011

I’ve read enough books about the invention of everyday objects that I recognized most of the stories in 10 Accidental Discoveries That Generated Great Wealth.

But one surprised me. I had never heard of a company called Kutol or of how it was saved from going out of business by selling wallpaper cleaner. For that matter, I had never heard of wallpaper cleaner. I’ve washed painted walls, but as far as I was concerned, either wallpaper could be cleaned with a wet cloth (if it was the vinyl-coated sort) or it couldn’t be cleaned at all (which is just one more reason to prefer paint to wallpaper).

Of course, I never lived in a home heated by coal. Apparently part of spring cleaning used to be removing the soot that collected on the wallpaper as a result of burning coal for heat. Housewives could make their own wallpaper cleaner, from flour, water, salt, and borax, but there were also commercially available premixed cleaners. A young soap salesman named Cleo McVicker saved a company named Kutol from going out of business by getting a contract to sell wallpaper cleaner to Kroger grocery stores (despite Kutol never having manufactured the product before), and he ended owner of the world’s biggest manufacturer of wallpaper cleaner.

The company hit hard times again when Cleo died in a plane crash, then oil and gas heat replaced coal, and vinyl-coated wallpaper was introduced that could be cleaned with soap and water. Then Joe McVicker, only in his 20’s, found out he was dying of cancer and started undergoing experimental radiation treatment. In the midst of all this, Joe’s sister-in-law got an idea from a magazine to take some wallpaper cleaner to the nursery school she ran. It was nontoxic, easy to mold into different shapes, and it didn’t stain the way clay did.

The children loved it. Kay told her brother-in-law about it, and Cleo’s brother N.W. (who handled formulating the cleaners) modified the product to remove the detergent, replace the odor of solvent with an almond smell, and add colorant. They had been selling the wallpaper cleaner for 34 cents a can, but the modified product flew off the shelves at $1.50 a can. They called it Play-Doh, and the rest, as they say, is history.


Experimental musician

May 13, 2011

I don’t like to go three days without writing a blog post, but I also see no point in blogging for the sake of blogging, so I have to find something that interests me enough to want to write about it. Fortunately the Life & Culture section of WSJ.com is just the place to find such things.

Just take a look at the photograph at the top of this story about musician Sxip Shirey, and you’ll see why the headline calls him a “mad scientist.” (He does have a background in physics, by the way.) I am intrigued as much by his use of brightly colored toys as by the fact that he uses them to make music, conglomerating them into contraptions that allow him to be a one-man band.

I haven’t listened to his YouTube channel yet (I’ll try that tomorrow on a faster computer), but from what I’ve read I expect I’ll enjoy it. Not the same way I enjoy Bach’s Air on the G String or Toccata and Fugue, or singing Handel’s Messiah or Mozart’s Coronation Mass. But I do have fun playing around with toy instruments (years ago, I picked up a Fisher Price Crazy Combo Horn Set at a yard sale, which I think I had as much fun playing as my son did). And Sxip can do real music with his toys.

In fact, it makes me wonder what I could do with a bunch of toys. (I haven’t got the money for yuppie toy shops, but this time of year there are some great yard sales…) But as I’m much better at imagining how things might work together than actually making them work, I’ll probably stick to enjoying Mr. Shirey’s unique musical style.


Books: Moby-Duck

April 14, 2011

Moby-Duck is my favorite sort of book to read – hard to describe because it does not fit easily into established categories, both educational and enjoyable, challenging me to think about things in new ways but not heavy-handed about it. It covers topics as diverse as the history of plastic, changing views of childhood, the history of Arctic exploration, oceanography, toy factories in China, environmentalism, and the business of maritime shipping.

Throughout, author Donovan Hohn skillfully weaves his various themes with the story of his own travels in search of the thousands of bath toys lost at sea nearly twenty years ago. He brings each scene to life, full of fascinating detail and interesting people, so that even the deployment of scientific equipment from a research vessel reads like an adventure. I doubt I’ll ever go to sea as Hohn did, either for pleasure or education (and certainly not as a job), but I have a much better idea what it is like now – which is one reason I am not likely to go there.

One thing you can’t miss as you read this book is Hohn’s concern about how human behavior is harming the environment. He touches briefly on issues such as global warming and nuclear waste, but primarily it is about plastic in the ocean. One thing I like about his approach is that he doesn’t lecture the reader. He tells what he has learned from his research and what he has seen for himself, and lets the reader draw his own conclusions.

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