Thursday, September 22, 2011

Listen up, Libertarians!

   This afternoon,  I was driving across a remote section Nebraska on I- 80, and my wife was using her laptop computer, equipped with an "air card,"  to access the internet for information on where to find a restaurant. Few activities so evoke images of modernity and personal independence as that of being able to surf the net while cruising the interstate at 75 mph, a hundred miles from nowhere.  And the acolytes of extreme private enterprise would surely cite this as the supreme example of the technological triumph of the free market.  No doubt, if they themselves were using the net while also using the interstate, the emails they sent would include political diatribes about how "big government" is the enemy of progress and individual freedom.  But is it?
     For the technological opportunity I just described to exist, a number of things had to occur.  First, the freeway system had to be built.   It was built by government.   In fact, it is the largest single engineering project in human history,  and except for WWII,  the greatest public expenditure in American history.  And the taxes raised to cover this expenditure may be the largest single act of taxation.   This taxation still continues today and will continue forever, since the maintenance and repair to keep this system in use will go on forever.  But if it had not been built, we could not be using it.
    Other things which had to occur were: 1. The development of the internet,  courtesy of the U.S Dept of Defense,  2. The development of geosynchronous communications satellites,  pioneered by the United States Army Signal Corp in the early 1960s,  along with the negotiation by our State Dept of numerous international treaties concerning the allocation and use of the frequencies involved, 3. The development of  cheap, small computers,  which needed, (first) the invention of the digital electronic computer itself,  first built  at Iowa State College in 1939 by Barry and Atanasoff, and paid for by state government, and (second) the "silicon chip," developed by NASA in the mid 60s.  (And of course the chip is merely an extension of the transistor, invented in 1948 by ATT/Bell Labs, which was then a government regulated monopoly.)
    Which of these things happened without massive government taxing,  spending, and regulation?    Private industry has always played a role, but that role in every case has been to wait until government had spent the major seed money to shepherd a new technology through the stages where there was no chance of making a profit---and then when it reached finally the stage where someone could make a buck--jump in and make that buck, and claim all the credit.  Private companies will pay for fine tuning an idea into something which they can sell.  But even today, only government will pay for ideas that will pay off forty years in the future.  Yet, forty years from now, we will surely need these things.  
   If an anti-government zealot who claims to be independent and self-sufficient lives in a log cabin in rural Idaho and hunts his own diner and wears buckskin shirts,  fine.   But if he wants a satellite link and a laptop,  give me a break!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Restoring Old Wood

    In the past several years, a number of innovative products for restoring weathered and dry rotted wood have come onto the market.  I have recently used some of them.   It happens that the building I call home was at one time a school, and atop its clay tile roof sits a handsome cupola/belfry.  Through the bell is long gone, the cupola still functions as an attic ventilator,  and would, in any case,  be difficult to remove.
    The fancy wood trimmings on this structure are badly weathered and dry rotted.   I had carefully repainted all this twenty years ago,  but haven't painted it since. The scaffold required to access this cupola is a tricky affair, and takes a week to build and tear down.    So annual repainting is not an option.   Left unpainted for the last twenty years,  the dry rot is severe.
     For most of the trim parts, I simply took accurate measurements and made new ones.  But there were four upright posts which sat on pedestals,  and these pedestals were not easy to replace.  They were 9" by 9" by 2" blocks, and the outside edge was milled to a pear shaped curve.   I took them to a local millwork shop, and they said they could easily make them if they had they right cutter blade.  It turned out that they did not, nor could they order such a blade.   Unless I wished to have a machine shop custom grind a new cutter, I would have to re-use the old wood.
   The wood blocks had each split along the grain into three or four pieces, and had large areas where the wood was rotted so badly that it could be scraped out with a spoon.    I first assembled the pieces of each block and clamped them all together, and then drilled 3/8" holes across the grain, from one side of the block to the other. I filled the holes with Elmer's Wood Glue and drove 3/8" wooden dowels in.  When the glue was dry,  the result was a block that held together rather well.  I then held the block against a wire wheel to remove the rotted wood.

       And then I coated it all over with JB Weld brand Wood Restore Liquid Hardener.   As soon as this dried, I applied several  thin coats of JB Weld brand Wood Restore Repair Putty, until the putty was flush with the original surface.  (This product is similar to the body putty used to repair dents in fenders, and is worked with the same tools and techniques.)  I now had a block precisely the same shape and dimensions  as the original,  and very solid.  It will survive weather better than the original wood,  and once painted, it won't look any different.   But just to give an added measure of weather protection,  I covered each wooden part with wire mesh and then put a thin coat of the Repair Putty over the entire surface, and sanded it smooth.

Ten years ago, this kind of quick fix would not have been possible.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Poem of the Ponies

I seldom bet upon horses as they run around their courses.
The winner is impossible to call.
But if I have a little weakness, it's the Derby and the Preakness,
Though the Belmont Stakes hold no allure at all.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

More Old Steam Engines

  For fairs which exhibit antique technology, especially agricultural technology, the Old Threshers' Reunion, in Mount Pleasant,  Iowa is the grand-daddy of them all.   Held every Labor Day weekend, it covers about two square miles, and is filled which every old tractor and steam engine imaginable.  Their own permanent collection includes a vintage railroad engine, pulling a train which hauls the public about the fair grounds.  Other conveyances available include three vintage electric trolleys.  Permanent buildings house a collection of old stationary steam engines, including behemoths  from power houses. You can also see a turn-of-the-century printing shop,  as well as an old machine shop, both powered off a line shaft run by a steam engine.  About a hundred threshing engines are usually displayed.  The have a carousel, powered by steam and accompanied by a large mechanical organ. And they have re-created an entire Old West town,  complete with railroad stations, a bank, blacksmith shops, and a saloon--all staffed with actors in period costume.  Food is provided at a reasonable price by several volunteer  organizations.  If there is one event in Iowa worth seeing--this is it.   And don't neglect to visit the theater museum.  At the beginning of the 20th century,  Iowa had over 700 opera houses, and the theater museum preserves this rich heritage.