Monday, April 16, 2007

Approaching Front

A strong cold front plowed through our community (Venice, FL) yesterday dropping the temperatures over 20 degrees. I was watching the front approach on the Doppler weather radar on the National Weather Service website. It struck me how far this technology has advanced in the last 20 years.

I have always been very interested in meteorology, even as a kid. In 1960, I had a plastic anemometer that I mounted on my parent's garage roof that gave the crudest of readouts of wind speed and direction. Still, the only weather that you could get was from a daily weather map in the newspaper or maybe a radio or tv forecast. Later, I graduated to a Heathkit electronic anemometer that I mounted on a mast on the roof of our first house in Roseville, MN. It was state-of-the-art home weather monitoring. I built the readout unit myself. The display was a compass rose with lights that corresponded to the wind direction and a simple electronic counter that gave the wind speed. It worked beautifully.

That was 1980. Still no easy access to weather maps or current weather data. Fast forward 25 years. Now I no longer need a home weather station (although I still think it would be cool to have one). My 'weather station' is the Web. The number of weather sites and the amount of information I can glean from my laptop is truly staggering.

Just yesterday, I was looking at the Weather Underground site from the University of Michigan. They are taking the home weather station concept full circle. Now if you have a computer-linked weather station, you can upload the data to the Underground. They have a Google Maps mashup that displays where the stations are located and a summary of temperature and wind data for each station on the map. I am inspired! Maybe enough to even consider buying a weather station and linking in.

Despite all this massive data, however, its still hard to know what to expect right in your own backyard. Remember the front I was tracking yesterday? It had a squall line of storms barreling towards us. I thought we were going to get clobbered...but nothing happened. The storms parted and went right around us. A little rain but hardly as much as a thunderclap. My 'storm-chaser' soul was devastated. There is always next time. And who knows, by then I may have a weather station.

(All images from Weather Underground)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Things Are Going Swimmingly

Swimming Pool at Mohenjo-daro
Picture from Wikipedia

One of the real joys of my retirement is getting away from winter. After almost 60 of the wretched beasts, I have had it with the Currier and Ives look. Sunshine is my new gig. As I was sitting next to the pool this morning, I was thinking about how much maintenance these thing take: chlorine, cleaning, filters, pumps, the list goes on and the money goes out. Nevertheless, the pool is a beauty to behold and I wouldn't give it least not any time soon.

This got me to wondering who built the first swimming pool? People have been wading in the water for as long as there have been people...and water. Most of that wading has been in oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds, and every other natural body of water. It may not have always been that beautiful but it was cheap. And the plumbing took care of itself for the most part.

At some point, people started living in larger communities and the old swimming hole was no longer enough. Instead of having the people go to the water, they decided to bring the water to them. I remembered seeing a swimming pool in my stroll through Pompeii a few years ago. Given the Roman proclivity towards the baths, I thought perhaps they were the first to move from standing still and bathing to moving and swimming. But once again, antiquity surprises.

From the little digging in the web, I come across a reference that says that the earliest known swimming pool was in Mohenjo-daro in what is now Pakistan. It seems that the civilizations in the Indus Valley got the idea for a full fledged pool somewhere between 1700 BC and 2600 BC. Their pool was no simple hole in the ground. This was a huge affair in the center of the city with stone steps and a special tar to seal the walls. This pool could rival many of the YMCAs around the country. And this was way before the C even existed.

Reading about the Indus Valley Civilization (also known as the Harappa) is a humbling experience. We think of ourselves as progressive and yet in this city that is 4000 years old we find extraordinary city planning. Streets are laid out on a precise grid. Sanitation was built in with covered sewers. While houses drew water from wells, some houses seemed to have rooms with their own baths. This was obviously a city that valued cleanliness and as a consequence, health.

The city of Mohenjo-daro (meaning Mound of the Dead, its real name remains unknown) flourished for a thousand years and then suddenly seems to have been abandoned around 1700 BC. Why is not clear. Maybe they called the plumber but they were told the pipes were too old and they needed new digs.

I wonder who will be excavating my swimming pool four thousand years hence? Surely, this will be a major archeological mecca for some future Indiana Jones type. I can picture it: the finding of the pool walls, the removal of the rubble, and at the bottom our little yellow rubber ducky pool thermometer still gamely trying to read the temperature. Except the temperature will be off the scale because Global Warming will have morphed us into a new species. Around these parts, maybe into fish as I expect the yard to be on the bottom of a rising sea.


Mohenjo-daro, Wikipedia

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Houston, We Have a Problem

On this date in 1970, the Apollo 13 mission was launched. The crew consisted of Rusty Swigert, Jim Lovell, and Fred Haise. Two days later, on April 13th, an oxygen tank ruptured putting the entire mission into a life threatening situation. Through shear tenacity and ingenuity, all three astronauts were returned to earth safely after looping around the moon. A movie dramatizing the events was released in 1995.


Apollo 13: Wikipedia


On this date in 1901, Adriano Olivetti was born. Olivetti was famous for his typewriters, calculators, and computers. Olivetti studied business in the United States and brought the methods of Taylorism to his father's typewriter shop. The result was dramatically increased production which the socialist-minded Adriano used to increase the wages of his workers and improve their living conditions. He was a member of the anti-fascist underground during WWII. He died in 1960.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Patent and the Pin

United States Patent Statute Signed Into Law: 1790

On this date in 1790, President George Washington signed into law the first U.S. Patent Statute. At the time, only 12 states had ratified the Constitution. Rhode Island in fact ratified the Constitution 49 days after the first patent law was created. The concept of a Patent Office would come later. For this first statute, anyone desiring a patent was required to submit their invention to the Secretary of State who would review it with the Secretary of War and the Attorney General. The first patents had a term of 14 years. The first patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford, VT on July 31, 1790 for a method of making potash. That first year, only three patents were granted. All of the original patent records were lost in a terrible fire in December of 1836 after approximately ten thousand patents had been issued. The (by then) U.S. Patent Office began numbering the patents all over again at No. 1. Today, over six million patents have been issued in the United States.


History of the United States Patent Office, Kenneth W. Dobyns, 1994

History of Patent Law, Wikipedia

Safety Pin Patented: 1849

On this date in 1849, Walter Hunt was granted a US Patent (No, 6,281) for the safety pin. According to the US Patent Office website, Hunt was a prolific inventor who in 1834 had built America's first sewing machine. He didn't patent it out of concern for putting hand sewers out of work (Hunt was a Quaker). No such concern would stop Elias Howe from patenting his own sewing machine some 20 years later. Expanding on the story of the safety pin, apparently Hunt owed his patent draftsman $15 and the college suggested that Hunt invent something to pay the debt. The result was the safety pin. He sold the rights to the draftsman for $400, a handsome sum but nothing like the invention's value. This was characteristic of Hunt who was one of the most prolific inventors of the era... but a lousy businessman.


The Safety Pin, Wikipedia


1917: Robert Burns Woodward, 1965 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry for his work in organic synthesis. Woodward was admitted to MIT in the fall of 1933 and a year later asked to leave for "inattention to his formal studies". Fortunately for all, he was readmitted in the Fall of 1935, completing his bachelors degree in 1936 and his Ph.D in 1937.


Nobel Biography, Nobel Prize Website