Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Week in Iowa

I spent last week in Davenport, Iowa visiting family members and attending my high school reunion. 

Here is the obligatory photo of the Mississippi River, as seen from the levee next to the Modern Woodmen baseball stadium (home of the Quad Cities River Bandits, the local Class A minor league team).  The bridge shown is the Centennial Bridge, which connects Davenport and Rock Island, Illinois.

My mother is no longer able to care for her flowers, but the beautiful perennials persist.

The neighbor to the south has two giant pin oaks.  One of the trees had its top snap off and crush my parents' front porch last summer.  The offending tree remained headless for a year.

Four days ago, a man came to lop off the remaining branches and take down the mighty trunk.  The fall was so violent that the whole house shook.

As I was getting ready to depart from the Moline airport this afternoon, I spied this modern sculpture in the airport lobby.  I suspect that the sculpture is a veiled commentary on current job prospects for musicians.  It's hard for them to make enough money to keep body and soul together.

"Grandpa's Violin" (Carved wood $2300) by Bill Wohlford — at Quad City International Airport (MLI).

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Fixing a Window Screen

When I bought my townhouse four and a half years ago, I noticed that one of the kitchen windows had a tattered screen.  (My younger son has theorized that a cat clawed it.)  Today I finally summoned the initiative to replace the screen material. 

You might attribute my delay in making repairs to my deep-seated psychological inhibitions, if you wished to indulge your charitable impulses -- or to ordinary sloth, if you wished to stoop to common sense.

The first order of business was to gather the required materials.  My younger son and I went to Lowe's hardware store and purchased fiberglass screen material, a length of rubber spline cord, and a spline tool.  These implements are used as follows.  The screen material is laid atop the rectangular aluminum frame.  Then, by forcefully rolling the spline tool, one presses the spline and the underlying screen material into a channel that runs along the inside edge of the frame.  Thus the screen material is secured in place.

The spline tool is highly specialized.  It's useful for nothing else but splinework, and no other tool in the toolbox can effectively substitute for it, not even its half brother the pizza cutter (shown below for the sake of comparison).


Upon our return home from Lowe's my son noticed that I had chosen light colored screen material instead of the charcoal gray that matched the other kitchen window screens.  Also, I had selected spline cord that was too thin, according to the precision calipers my son fetched from the garage.  A second visit to Lowe's corrected these blunders.

It was time to begin.  I was feeling a bit weak in the knees about the whole endeavor.  Fortunately, my son had performed screen repair before.  He walked me through each step in the process and provided supplemental tools to make the job easier, such as the clamps and shims to flex the frame and give a little slack during the spline process.  After the spline was pressed into place, he provided a utility knife to neatly trim off surplus screen material on the outer edge of the spline channel. 

The work went smoothly.  I followed my son's guidance and did everything right.  Well, almost everything.  The spline tool slipped in my hand at one point and I severed about an inch of the screen material next to the frame.  But I refuse to feel ashamed about it.  Those who love me will overlook the imperfection.  And those who don't love me can kindly keep their opinions to themselves.

Now it was time to reinstall the freshly repaired window screen. 

Earlier I had struggled when removing the screen frame, pushing and prying with a screw driver and nearly dropping the frame onto the asphalt alley below.  I resigned myself to another bout of pushing and prying.  However, son asked me to wait before attempting the reinstallation.  He disappeared into the garage and then returned to the kitchen several minutes later with a brass rod that was bent on one end.  Here it is, shown balanced on a cork for ease of viewing.

I proceeded with the reinstallation and got the top and the left edge of the screen frame in position.  All that remained was to lift the lower right corner of the screen frame above the metal lip running along the bottom of the window.  But instead of clumsily forcing the screen frame up with a screwdriver, this time I hooked the little spoon-like end of the brass rod under the corner of the frame and gave a gentle pull.  The frame eased into its proper place.  Brilliant! 

That is, my son was brilliant in inventing and fabricating the perfect tool for the job.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fourth of July Baseball and Fireworks

A friend of mine generously invited my younger son and me to join his annual company get-together at the July 4th Colorado Rockies baseball game and fireworks show.

The Colorado Rockies were playing the L.A. Dodgers.  The Dodgers' record was 49-40, tops in the National League West.  The Rockies were in a slump, having fallen 12 games back at 37-50; and their best hitter, Troy Tulowizki, was out of the lineup with some affliction described as "groin tightness."  (On the other hand, "groin looseness" sounds like an even more troubling affliction.  Clearly, it's important to maintain a healthy balance groin-wise.)  Anyway, the Rockies were facing a hard evening's work.  None of the Colorado fans pouring into the stadium seemed very optimistic.  

The weather was perfect and, as always, Coors Field was a delight.  Our seats were behind home plate in the Upper Level Infield section, a pleasant well-shaded area with an excellent view.

The stadium provides a state-of-the-art scoreboard that gives the batting lineup and player statistics.  It also provides "instant replay" video for crucial plays.  This is a great boon for those of us who are so accustomed to watching televised sports that we feel compelled to have our own eyesight validated by a subsequent video of the action.  (Reliance on the instant replay is probably undermining both my attentiveness and my overall character.)

Here is a picture of the scoreboard taken at the top of the fourth inning.  Morneau, the Rockies first baseman, is batting.  There are two outs.  The Dodgers are ahead 3-0.

By the end of the game the Dodgers had manhandled the Rockies for 6 more runs and won the game 9-0.  Apart from scattered booing during the final inning, the Colorado fans generally took the loss in stride.  Now it was time to prepare for the fireworks show.

The fireworks artillery was staged right outside the stadium and was located behind the scoreboard.  This meant that people sitting in the left field stands and in the cheap seats called the Rock Pile would need to find a place on the outfield grass in order to have a view of the fireworks.

It took more than half an hour for these people to find a place in the outfield.  They had to slowly file down the steps in the stands and then walk behind the stands until they emerged from an opening at the far left corner of left field.  Groundskeepers cordoned off walkways that split the traffic into two groups: one group traveled along the outfield warning path; the other group traveled just outside the infield.  The two groups met up near first base and thence spread out into the outfield area to lay down their blankets.

The entire process was aggravatingly slow.  My friend asked me, "As an engineer, how would you speed things up?"

I replied that it was partly a crowd-control problem and partly a flow problem, but I didn't have a quick off-the-cuff solution to give him.  However, as I reflected on the situation after the game, I decided that there were two main choke points to the flow.

First, there was the unavoidable flow restriction to exiting the stands that was due to slower mobility associated with young children and old people.  Easing this restriction would require ergonomic changes to the steep and narrow stairways and would probably be deemed impractical by the stadium owners.

Second, after the fans made their circuit around the outfield and arrived at first base, they moved out (the military term is debouched) onto the outfield grass in an inefficient way.  The early families claimed their territory by spreading out their blankets such that a wide buffer zone was maintained between blankets.  As the latecomers arrived, the early families would have to shift their blankets to make room for the latecomers.  It was a slow and chaotic process.

The situation was roughly analogous to birds roosting on power lines at twilight.  The first birds establish a comfortable space between themselves.  As more birds crowd in, ruffled feathers and squawking result.

A better method for spacing family blankets on the outfield would be to have the groundskeepers explicitly direct the blanket placement.

I did something much like this nearly fifty years ago when I helped park cars on a farmer's field across from the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds.  I jauntily waved a wooden cane (an implement that gave my parking commands particular focus and also served as my credential as an authorized parking official on behalf of the farmer, despite my negligible presence as a skinny teenager) and efficiently guided drivers to park in precise lines and also preserve appropriate gaps for aisles.  I was brilliant at this.

For a small stipend I could train the Coors Field groundskeepers in my proven parking techniques.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Isaac Watts on Humor

I found some cautionary comments on humor in the 1727 book The Improvement of the Mind by Dr. Isaac Watts (1674-1748).  Dr. Watts was an English Nonconformist minister, a noted logician, and a famous writer of such mighty hymns as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."  Dr. Watts's wisdom deserves attention, even if  -- or perhaps especially if -- it conflicts with my inclinations.  I may have to consider moderating my affection for literary silliness from the time of the Great War.

[Note: ignis fatuus refers to a marsh light also known as will-o'-the-wisp.  Ignis fatuus is a particularly appropriate metaphor to adorn the following discussion, as the term is derived from the Medieval Latin for "foolish fire."] 

From the 1885 abridgement by Stephen Fellows (jettisoning most of Watts's theological foundations):

Chapter I.  General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge

XII.  He that would raise his judgment above the vulgar rank of mankind, and learn to pass a just sentence on persons and things, must take heed of a fanciful temper of mind and a humorous conduct in his affairs.  Fancy and humor, early and constantly indulged, may expect an old age overrun with follies.

The notion of a humorist is one that is greatly pleased, or greatly displeased, with little things; who sets his heart much upon matters of very small importance; who has his will determined every day by trifles, his actions seldom directed by the reason and nature of things, and his passions frequently raised by things of little moment.  Where this practice is allowed, it will insensibly warp the judgment to pronounce little things great, and tempt you to lay a great weight upon them.  In short, this temper will incline you to pass an unjust value on almost every thing that occurs; and every step you take in this path is just so far out of the way to wisdom.

XIII.  For the same reason have a care of trifling with things important and momentous, or of sporting with things awful and sacred: do not indulge a spirit of ridicule, as some witty men do on all occasions and subjects.  This will as unhappily bias the judgment on the other side, and incline you to pass a low esteem on the most valuable objects.  Whatsoever evil habit we indulge in practice, it will insensibly obtain a power over our understanding and betray us into many errors.

{ Jocander is ready with his jests to answer every thing that he hears; he reads books in the same jovial humor, and has gotten the art of turning every thought and sentence into merriment.  How many awkward and irregular judgments does this man pass upon solemn subjects, even when he designs to be grave and in earnest!  His mirth and laughing humor is formed into habit and temper, and leads his understanding shamefully astray.  You will see him wandering in pursuit of a gay flying feather, and he is drawn by a sort of ignis fatuus into bogs and mire almost every day of his life. }