Category: Humor

Around Robin Hoods Barn in an Electric Car – Part One

 

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

“Around Robin Hoods barn” is a euphemism for an unnecessarily long and complicated journey.

This reporter is not an authority on electric vehicles but he did own and drive one for a couple of years.  Neither can he qualify as an expert on electric power generation but Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has some of those.

This tale has metastasized into a lengthy discourse and will – of necessity – be serialized.

Baker, Ford, Edison and Electric Vehicles:

Electric vehicles are nothing new.  There were electric “carriages” as early as the turn of the nineteenth Century.  They were, as a rule – one-off, custom made vehicles and extremely expensive.  The Baker Motor Vehicle Company did go into a production line situation and made a virtue of the expense of its product. Thomas Edison apparently bought one. Anyone familiar with Jay Leno’s pastime will not be surprised that he owns a Baker.

11-Electric-Baker-DV_13-US-0011
Figure 0: A Baker Electric, similar to Jay Leno’s

Jay also has an Owen Magnetic which was even more interesting and the creation of George Westinghouse..

But, any industrial-scale production would have to wait until some Titan of Industry took up the task, like say…Henry Ford.

Henry Ford (the original) built and tested several prototypes in the early years of the Twentieth Century.  There is a fascinating article by Daniel Strohl (2010) that detailed the efforts of Ford in that direction.  This piece is spellbinding for anyone afflicted with Nerd-Geek-Trivia Syndrome (NGTS) like yours truly.

Fordelectric_01_800
Figure 1: Ford’s first prototype electric car circa 1913.  Batteries under the seat and motor in the rear. The steering mechanism is quite interesting.  It seems to be a transverse tiller (at the driver’s left hand) connected by a flexible cable (!) to the front axle.  A bank of batteries under the front seat.


Fordelectric_02_800
Figure 2:  A second Ford prototype on a model T chassis. The driver in this and the previous photo is electrical engineer Fred Allison. Note the more conventional steering, additional batteries and “Rich Corinthian Leather” of the upholstery.

 

[1]   https://www.hemmings.com/blog/2010/05/25/henry-ford-and-the-electric-car/

I lifted three quotes from this.  The first is an understatement of a problem.

Henry Ford:  January 11, 1914, New York Times:

The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.

Ford recognized the primary problem, alright.  In fact, he underestimated the problem because it killed the electric car in Ford’s lifetime and is still the big bugaboo haunting EV’s today.

Rather, as Bryan wrote, the downfall of the Edison-Ford electric car came about because :

“Ford demanded the use of Edison’s nickel-iron batteries in the car, and would have no other battery powering this car. Edison’s batteries, however, were found to have very high internal resistance and were thus incapable of powering an electric car under many circumstances. Heavier lead-acid batteries (which would have made the car too ponderous) were substituted behind Henry Ford’s back, and when he found out, he went ballistic. The program quickly fell to the wayside with other projects demanding Henry Ford’s time. According to The Ford Century, Ford invested $1.5 million in the electric car project and nearly bought 100,000 batteries from Edison before the project fell apart.”

The second quote is one of those over-the-top optimistic things that even very smart people sometimes say.

Thomas Edison, May 1914:

“All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.”

I drove a truck to New York City just last year.  Brooklyn it was.  There were plenty of trucks around – illegally double and triple parked.  Not one of them was electric.

Such optimism can be forgiven in long retrospect.  That sort of thing cannot be helped in uncharted territory of emerging technologies.

According to Click and Clack – the Tappet Bros.

Compared to Car Talk, all other forms of Saturday morning entertainment shrink to insignificance.  Tom (RIP) and Ray Magliozzi clowned around while giving car advice on the air.  They had some uproariously funny bits and advice not just on cars but in all matters of Human Endeavor. People tended not to take them seriously.  But it is important to remember that these two were quite experienced and educated people.

The comment I remember from their show (but cannot track down for a reference) echoed that of Ford, some eighty-odd years before and it went something like this:  “The problem with electric cars is – and always has been- the batteries.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_and_Ray_Magliozzi

{color:blue;}The Jet Electrica

Direct experience is the best method for learning and I can authoritatively state that the battery problem had not been resolved as of the early years of the Twenty First Century.

Around the turn of the aforementioned Century, I was fascinated by the idea of electric vehicles,  until I eventually bought one.  It was a 1981 Jet Electrica.  These things were built on Detroit products called “gliders” which are complete vehicles, including transmission and drive train, but lacking any engine.  The idea is that the EV company would provide the electric motor.

MyEcar
Figure 3: 1981 Jet Electrica.  This would have been a Mercury Lynx, which was a flashier version of a Ford Escort.

I don’t seem to have any photos of my own of the vehicle that took me to work and back for two years.  This one was grabbed off the internet and turns out to be from the used car ad that I saw when I bought this vehicle for $1000.  I am quite sure that this is the one because after 5 or 10 years, the state of Texas says you need a new license plate (not just “year stickers”) on your car and the one you see on the front in this picture (YZY 11T) is now nailed up on a joist in my garage (this is a tradition in Texas).

That motor is the easy part.  It is tiny compared to the Internal Combustion Engine required to move the “real” (i.e., non-glider) model of this vehicle around.  It was connected directly to the clutch and the driver would start with his foot OFF the clutch, accelerating rapidly to 5 mph and up-shifting from there.  The “acceleration” went flat at about ten mph and I was constantly harassed, passed and hated by cars behind me.  In fourth gear, it was possible to careen down a boulevard at 45 mph.  Once (once!) I took an on-ramp to Interstate 10 and managed to get the poor thing up to 70 mph.  At that time, Scotty called up from Engineering and said, “Cap’n! Ah cahnt gi’ ye waarp five mooch langer!  It’ll tear th’ Enterprise apahrt!  I took the next exit ramp and never again did the Jet see Interstate pavement.  Braking was done in the conventional way, but lacking any benefit from downshifting.  The car stops in 4th with the clutch still engaged and the shift to first is made while motionless.

As Ford learned all  those decades before your humble narrator, it is the batteries that were the big problem. The batteries in the Jet Electrica were similar to the configuration of Ford’s second prototype and used those same type of lead-acid batteries.  There were six six-volt golf cart batteries under the hood.  A fat cable connected them to ten more such units under the hatchback, beneath and iron (SIC) cover what would be the spare tire well and gasoline tank in a normal Lynx. These are directly connected with the passenger compartment, you understand!  That’s a bad idea for several reasons.   There was a 17th battery – this one a 12 volt – that powered the lights and radio.  It was tucked under the left rear fender.

The ten batteries in the back were connected in series by standard battery cables with top-post connectors on each end.  There are a grand total of 16 six volt batteries that supplied a 96 volts to the motor.  The batteries were “deep-draw” that is they hold a lot of charge and will dump large amounts of current quickly – between 100 and 200 amps.  There was more than enough voltage and current to do electric arc welding with just a lead and ground connected to the first positive  and last negative terminal of  the battery pack.  The cable ends tended to loosen as the car’s body flexed when it went over bumps and around turns. The loose connection makes for more resistance and heat is generated.  Least you think it might be minor – that welding example needs temperatures of about 1200 degrees F. Eventually, the battery terminal melts off its base and falls through the plastic case.  Lead acid batteries generate hydrogen gas and it is ignited by the red-hot electrode and subsequently explodes.  This is loud enough to be unnerving and of course breaks the series circuit.  Like cheap Christmas lights, when one goes out, they all go out and you’re walking. Unless you happen to be carrying a long spare cable.  Then you simply connect the battery before the deader to the battery after same and you drive on with a now 90 volt system.  You drive straight home, because another one may blow.

You take the warrantied battery back to Sam’s Club and trade it in for a new one.  Shrug when asked what happened and no need to mention that this is not from a piddley little 36 volt golf cart but a 96 volt “compact car” that weighs 3300 pounds with all these packets of lead aboard.

The solution to that particular problem was to tighten all the battery connections each time I wanted to drive somewhere.  And while we are at it we can open the 48 battery caps and fill them up with distilled water.  Some cells seemed to be “thirstier” than others.  And, best to wear a shop apron or change to work clothes for this labor, since the acid fumes eat your clothing in short order.  The batteries also outgas what I suspect is some compound of sulfuric vapor.  The smell alone was enough to remind me that the batteries contain sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and water (H2O) and chemical reactions going on all the time.  A little knowledge is a scary blessing. In the oil industry, there are “sour wells” that contain Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) and the stuff will kill you pretty quickly at very low concentrations.  I have no doubt that at least a small fraction of the fumes from the battery pack were this deadly compound. There was an exhaust fan in the rear battery compartment that I never managed to make operate.  So, instead I arranged to prop open the hatchback and leave the front windows at least partially down at all times while driving.

The ventilation requirements became a problem in the winter.  The car had a heater that made  the irony factor go right off the scale.  Since heating off the battery bank would potential cut the 40 mile range in half on a cold day, the manufacturers of this electromechanical oddity had put in a gasoline burning heater. These are nothing new.  My father owned a (conventional gasoline powered) car with such a device in about 1950.  So I am told by my Uncle (Mother’s younger Brother) who was able to borrow that vehicle for drive-in movie dates.  The gasoline heater was far more efficient than running the engine for heat and made such social functions affordable.

The heater in the Electric had a two-gallon tank, which was cleverly installed behind the filler for the conventional Lynx tank.  The previous owner had not used it and – thinking of all the hydrogen fumes floating around – neither did I.  On really cold mornings I ran an extension cord to the Jet and left a hair dryer running for a half hour or so to warm the cab and defrost the windshield.

This Jet company had the audacity to put a battery powered air conditioner under the back seat.  As purchased its disembodied motor/compressor unit was on the floorboard and that is as close as it got to ever again attempting to cool the car.  Air conditioning in Houston is not for lightweights.  In the 80’s (if I remember correctly) Houston had a new fleet of Grumman busses with their standard air-conditioners.  They quickly surrendered to the Texas Summer and were re-enforced with huge roof-mounted units.  The previous owner of the Lynx / Electrica lived in Dallas, which is worse.  Dallas was enduring a heat wave in the 1990’s and some bus rider with a thermometer complained that the temperature in the bus was 95° F.

The bus driver told him, “Mister, these air conditioners are good for twenty degrees of cooling.  It is 119° outside so you are getting four more degrees of cooling than you have any right to expect   Please go back and sit down”

I have little doubt that A/C would have eaten up the majority of the poor car’s 40-mile range on hot days.

There is a little known aspect of lead-acid batteries that I re-discovered by accident.  I mentioned that the lid over the battery compartment was iron.  It was a least an eighth inch thick and when I first looked under it there was a big sheet of thick acid-eaten cardboard on top of the batteries, which I removed.

Months later, I was replacing the 12 volt battery and swung the new one up and plopped it down on the iron lid. Something said, BOOM!”.

It turns out that if you push down hard on the middle of the iron lid  (perhaps by plopping a 60 pound battery on it), you can manage to bend it down enough to put a direct short across the terminals of one of the six-volt batteries.  This tries to release all the charge once – with explosive results.  The purpose of the thick sheet of cardboard was now obvious.   Fortunately, the lid mostly protected the hapless amateur electrical engineer from the ensuing shrapnel.

The Sam’s Club battery guys knew me by this time and asked no question when I turned in the warranted remains for a new one.  The iron lid thereafter had a hole in it and a new sheet of cardboard was atop the batteries.

I tell you all these horror stories not to condemn the electric car but to convey the state of technology at the time.  Not necessarily that of the mid 2000’s when I drove the thing, but at least in the early 1980’s when the Jet was new.

I will have to  pick up the story later.

Hasta Luego,

Steve

Uranus: The Seventh Planet

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

Uranus

(OK, Reader! Wipe that smile off your face and pay attention!)

This poor planet suffers that name that sounds like two words your Proctologist might put together when discussing your condition.  It is laughed at so often that it inspired an article by a man name DeCotis.  I cannot locate the original article but I emailed him the following message.  I hasten to point out that this text – once sent – has been augmented, improved, embellished and even illustrated over the years and especially just prior to the posting of this article.

Mr. DeCotis,

Heartiest congrats to Space Online, Billy Cox and yourself on a wonderful bit of writing about the planet Uranus. I myself have long considered the name of first trans-Saturnian planet to be a problem. This became a matter of importance when, in 1977, it was discovered that, like other Gas Giants, “Neptune-Minus-One” had rings. This was before Voyager 2 got to #7 and was accomplished by watching that planet pass in front of a star. This is called an occultation. Unexpectedly, the star dimmed several times before and after the planet covered it. Only rings could explain it since expecting that many satellites to be lined up in that fashion was improbable in the extreme. 

Knowing me to be an Astronomy student, people would ask me, “Are there really rings around Uranus?”. I understood that as a very personal and offending question and I was tempted to demonstrate the (negative) answer visually, but I refrained.

 Actually, I explained to them about the occultation, just as in the first paragraph – being a thoroughgoing Astronomy nerd.

UranusLightCurveCrop
Figure 1:  The actual light curve
from the 1977 occultation that
detected Uranus’ rings.

 

There was a Science Fiction B-movie about Uranus which was euphemistically entitled “Journey  to the Seventh Planet” back in the sixties*. Even as a teenager (or especially as a teenager, I suppose) it didn’t take long to figure out what they were avoiding. There was a brief movement (no disgusting pun intended) to transfer the emphasis to the first syllable but you can see (well, hear) immediately that this is a non-starter (“Urine-us”). The name would still be in the bathroom humor department and would only prompt a new round of adolescent jokes.

    It was about then that I decided that “Joe” was a nice enough name. But in order to differentiate whether we were talking about Lewis, Dimaggio, Cool, College, Blow, Six Pack or the Planet, we’d need to specify “Joe the Planet” for every reference. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Joe the Planet, Neptune and Pluto. I’ll grant you it’s a bit awkward at first but it should put an end to the pubescent snickering in astronomy lectures and planetarium shows.
Sincerely,

Steve

 *I looked it up on YouTube recently – it still stinks.

In college, I was assured by actual Astronomy Professors that this planet’s name is “your ah noose” (accent on “ah” and “noose” rhymes with moose).  The other pronunciations you may have heard are either erroneous or may be attributed to the aforementioned “bathroom humor”.

Now that we have the nomenclature issue dealt with, let’s have a look at the planet itself.

Discovery:

Quoting a NASA planet resource website{1]:

“The first planet found with the aid of a telescope, Uranus was discovered in 1781 by astronomer William Herschel, although he originally thought it was either a comet or a star. It was two years later that the object was universally accepted as a new planet, in part because of observations by astronomer Johann Elert Bode.

William Herschel tried unsuccessfully to name his discovery Georgium Sidus after King George III. Instead the planet was named for Uranus, the Greek god of the sky, as suggested by Johann Bode.”

So, it’s “Bode’s ill” – so to speak.  Don’t blame poor Herschel for the double entendre.  Nor his sister Caroline who joined the musician turned astronomer and accomplished many discoveries of her own:

“Caroline assisted Herschel until his death.  She discovered eight comets. She also discovered several deep-sky objects and was the first woman to be given a paid scientific position…”

Early Observation

There was not much to see.  Even in the most powerful “backyard” telescopes – as late as the 1980’s Uranus was a small dim pale blueish green dot.  A “professional” telescope of that era would be required to resolve the largest satellite, Titania as a featureless point of light.  Even in those elaborate instruments, Uranus maintained its elusive nature.

“Even through large telescopes the planet often appears fuzzy and indistinct. Brightness variations are sometimes reported, the likely result of changes in the planet’s atmosphere.”  [2]

UranusTelescopeView

Figure 2:  Uranus through a large “backyard” telescope.

Below is that table of planetary statistics that readers may have seen before.

PlanetaryStatisticsTable 1: Statistics for the Planets

 

The seventh planet is 19 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

SimpleAUDiagram

Figure 3: Simple “Visual aid” to depict the distance of Uranus (big green dot) from the Sun (Yellow asterisk) as compared to that of the Earth (little blue dot).  Only the distances are to scale – not the sizes of the Sun and planets.

In size, it is 31, 763 miles in diameter (four and a half times that of Earth).  Like all the Giant Planets, it rotates quickly (once every 17 hours and 12 minutes) and it is much less dense than the “Rocky Planets” like Earth.

The atmosphere is hydrogen and helium with some methane.  Deeper down, there is a “mantle” of water, ammonia and methane ices above a rocky core.  You see in figure 3A that they have not labeled the thicknesses of these layers.  That is a sure sign that they don’t really have a clue what those numbers should be!.

Internal-structure-of-UranusFigure 3A: Internal Structure of Uranus

A notable unique feature of Uranus is the orientation of its spin axis relative to the plane of its orbit (see “obliquity in orbit” in the table).  In the Uranian summer and winter the axis of rotation of the planet points almost directly at the Sun – resulting in one hemisphere in constant sunlight and the other in darkness.  This is thought to have been caused by Uranus’ collision with a large planetoid late in its formation.  The diagram below explains the situation.

UranusPhases

Figure 4:  Seasons of Uranus

 

Uranus was visited by a space probe only once.  It was the third stop on what was called at the time “The Grand Tour”.  As it happened, there was an alignment of the outer planets in the 70’s and 80’s such that it would be possible to use gravity assisted orbital adjustments (“the slingshot effect”) to make it possible for a space probe to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one long and carefully managed trajectory.  The Voyager 2 Spacecraft did exactly that and arrived in the area of Uranus in 1986.

The Voyager 2 Spacecraft        

The Voyager probes each had a main antenna that was capable of constant communications with the Earth.  This necessitated what is called a “scan platform” that held the instruments that need precise pointing and moved independently of the antenna.  The constant contact was needed because data storage was actually on a ½ inch, 8 track magnetic tape with a total capacity of about ½ Megabyte and a top baud rate of 56 kilobits per second (2).  That’s what I said – “Stone Knives and Bear Skins!” – so, real-time transmission was required for image data.”  Voyager was – despite my demeaning reference – quite advanced at the time and its imagery and other data are still quite impressive. They made the most of the technology at hand.

The image below depicts the identical Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 Spacecraft. (4) The dish antenna is 3.7 meters in diameter (12 feet, 2 inches) across.  The arm extending to the right contains the main experiments and the imaging “scan platform”.  The left arm holds the three radioisotope thermoelectric generators that power the probe that provided the electric power out in the dark reaches where solar panels would be quite ineffective.  The gold disk on the “body” is the famous Record with messages and images of Earth for anyone “out there”.    Carl Sagan, whose enthusiasm for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) was well-known had thought to perhaps include a plaque with a message engraved upon it as had been done with the Pioneer space probes.  This Record (an actual grooved phonograph Long Playing (LP) disc – only metal, not vinyl) was the idea of Frank Drake.  SETI Nerds will recognize Drake as the inventor of the “Drake Equation” which is a formula to calculate how many extraterrestrial civilizations there might be.  That’s Frank in the inset, with his equation.  I put him there to give scale to the picture.

VoyagerDrake

Figure 5: The Voyager Spacecraft        NASA/NASA website

UranusBlandVoyagerPhoto

Figure 6: A Voyager view of Uranus in 1986. 

Even the dedicated planetary scientists had to admit they were disappointed with the rather very bland appearance of the planet.  In trying to describe the feelings of the Voyager team about the mediocrity of it all, Planetary Scientist Heidi Hammel had this to say,  “…poor Uranus…poor Uranus!”.[6]

There had been observations from Earth of clouds in this atmosphere, so what’s the deal?  You will see in the diagram in figure 4 that the solstice – that point in the orbit where one hemisphere is constantly roasting in sunlight – was in 1986.  Just when Voyager happened along.  Later observations were made with (much improved) telescopes in the years surrounding the Equinox of 2007 (see Figure 4) – when most of Uranus has 8 ½ hours sun and 8 ½  hours darkness – “barbeque” mode, as they say.  Those images showed Uranus in its more “flamboyant” mood. Figure 7.

UranusEquinox

Figure 7:  Uranus near Equinox.  Note the rings (R) – now markedly evident when they are seen edge-on.

It is probably worth noting that the Voyager camera and those of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are almost certainly quite different in their ranges of wavelengths and sensitivities, so they are not directly comparable.  Nonetheless, we may expect more blandness from “poor Uranus” around the Summer Solstice in 2028.

I should mention that there is a lot more science involved than just the images recorded by Voyager and results from those found new and interesting features, as well. For example, the magnetic field detected is not centered on the planet core and its poles are near the rotational equator.  This was totally unexpected.

The Satellite that “Saved the Show”

One of the major aspects of interest in the Giant planets was the characteristics and history of their satellites.  With Jupiter and Saturn, the space probes entered and left the planetary systems obliquely across the orbits of the moons and could, with luck, come close to several of them for detailed examination.  In the case of Uranus, the moons’ orbits are like circles on the sky and are approached as if in target practice.  The “Grand Tour” scenario of hopping from one outer planet too the next required very specific trajectories past the planets along the way.  That, and the angle of the sun left only one chance of a close approach to a satellite and even that would see only the perpetually lit hemisphere of the smallest of the major moons – Miranda (Figure 7) It could not have been predicted that this would be by far the most interesting of all the moons and the feature we could all point to when asked by non-Nerds why all this expense and effort was spent to go look at a blue-green billiard ball – with no number on it.

Miranda

Figure 8:  Miranda

Miranda is the smallest (about 300 miles across) of the major satellites and the closest to the planet (roughly 81,000 miles).  It circles Uranus in 1.4 days and always shows the same face to the planet.  This is looking down at the South pole.  In the season when Voyager arrived, this was pretty much all that would have been illuminated.

And, it looks like it has been broken apart and then shoved back together!  Not surprisingly, that is one idea of how it came to look so.

“Scientists disagree about what processes are responsible for Miranda’s features. One possibility is that the moon may have been smashed apart in some colossal collision, and the pieces then haphazardly reassembled. Another, perhaps more likely, scenario is that the coronae are sites of large rocky or metallic meteorite strikes which partially melted the icy subsurface and resulted in episodic periods of slushy water rising to Miranda’s surface and refreezing.”[8]

Uranus has four larger satellites.  The biggest is Titania which is still less than half the diameter of the Earth’s moon.  As mentioned earlier they were not well surveyed in the fly-by, but a map of Titania’s surface appears in figure 9.

TitaniaCasma.

Figure 9:  A Map of Titania’s surface.  Again, only about half the surface was illuminated and this is the least boring part of that.

The larger satellite also has some interesting surface features.  I am reminded of my own varicose veins.

Conclusions

  1. The seventh planet turns out to be rather dull and featureless, but only for the Southern Summer. The Spring Equinox brought considerable atmospheric activity after Voyager but now detectable from the improved cameras of the Hubble Space Telescope and other modern observatories.
  2. The satellites of all the Giant Planets all turned out to be far more complex than was first imagined by Earthbound observers. Uranus is no exception.
  3. Uranus still has that unfortunate name (despite my “Joe” recommendation) but we can overlook that because we are all adults, here. Right?…Right?

Hasta Luego,

Steve

[1] NASA Photos:

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/uranus/#!

[2] William Herschel:

https://www.space.com/17432-william-herschel.html

[3] Uranus Telescope view:

http://www.nakedeyeplanets.com/uranus-telescope.htm

[4} Voyager details:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_2#

[5] Table of Planetary Statistics:   http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/planet_table_british.html

[6] The Farthest: Voyager in Space – Netflix

[7]  Uranus Planetary Factsheet:  https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/uraniansatfact.html

[8] Miranda in Depth – NASA:  https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/miranda/indepth

 

 

Santa Claus and Superman

 

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

Think about it.

 santa_400x400SupermanCReeves

Two legendary figures. Both are instantly recognizable by their silly costumes. Both are infinitely helpful, benevolent and altruistic. Both can do amazing things that no human being could accomplish and are admired almost universally, especially among children. I’ve never seen them together, have you? What makes you think they aren’t the same guy? Who does he think he’s fooling with that phony looking beard?

Look at the similarities. Both prefer bright primary colors. Claus with his warm red suit and Superman with his stunning blue ensemble avec flashy red cape (and outside-jockey shorts) topped off by yellow highlights. Both show up unexpectedly then leave before you can thank them.

Wait just a minute! What about this Lone Ranger guy!

…Nah, he’s into earth tones and hangs out with Jay Silverheals.  Both Claus and Superman do their big work alone.

 Superman flies with no apparent help. Claus flies with the aid of reindeer, or is that just a ruse? They both exhibit an affinity for cold climates. Actually, both are commonly known to inhabit the Arctic reaches. Santa in his Workshop and Superman in the Fortress of Solitude. This you think is a coincidence?

Larry Niven pointed out that Superman had a pretty awful childhood – his folks dead, planet destroyed. He might be superhuman but just how much can any sentient life form put up with before he goes crackers? This guy’s schizophrenia is perhaps manifold. Santa might be an intermediate identity, half way between meek mild-mannered reporter and Super-hero.

Come to think of it he is already three people before you count Santa Claus.  His birth name is Kal-El (son of Jor-El of Krypton – a prosecuting attorney who looks like Marlin Brando – before the great “ballooning”).

Perhaps, orphaned and homeless himself as an infant, El/Kent/Superman engages in a forlorn form of bargaining-stage grief by dedicating one day a year to fulfilling the dreams of children…all of them. We know he wouldn’t have any trouble whipping out a few billion toys, but that might seriously cut into the time he spends catching bad guys or saving the structure of Space-Time itself.  But there is this trick he has of squeezing a lump of coal into a big, facet-cut diamond – so to provide funds to buy all the toys he might need,

I stumbled across another – and perhaps ultimate – explanation of this “Claus” persona.  There are these guys who are called “Mummers” you see.  Quoting Mummers.com:

“Mummers tradition dates back to 400 BC and the Roman Festival of Saturnalias where Latin laborers marched in masks throughout the day of satire and gift exchange.”

The tradition has survived the intervening 24 centuries to thrive until today. 

MummerExampleThis is an example of a modern-day Mummer.  I picked an “average” costume from Mummers.com.  The Prize Winners are way “over-the-top” by comparison.  Something we cannot say about Santa – nor about Superman…Well, “over the top” actually may be appropriate there.

Perhaps the unwilling visitor from Krypton has adopted this ancient custom.  I believe this may be the explanation of El/Kent/Superman’s additional pseudonym (i.e., Claus). 

 Conclusions:

  • Our beloved legends are far more complicated individuals than we imagine.
  • They may be far fewer individuals that we believe,
  • This proves two long held popular “truisms”:
  1. “Go big or go home.” If you want to be different, then leave a vast gulf of space between yourself and the surrounding “different” individuals.
  2. “Crazy like a fox”. Success and insanity are by no means strangers.  The fact that Schizophrenia may be thrown in on top of it is not particularly surprising.

    So, what else is going on up there at the top of the world?

Praecepta Absurde,

Steve

On Zeno’s Swim Team

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

When I was about 6 years old, my mother was a Water Safety Instructor (WSI).  And, since I had to go where she went most of the time, I learned to swim.  Not from her, you understand.  It is a well-known fact among aquatically inclined people that you cannot teach your own children to swim.  Your own children will cling to you like a second skin and refuse to let go.  They won’t do that to a total stranger – at least not until puberty.

So, Mom was teaching swimming to Intermediates which includes a child of the other WSI who is teaching Beginners – myself one.  It makes for a free child-care situation which was good because Mom had a way of spending money on things…actually many things…actually everything.

I remember once when I was being dragged out to a department store while Mom was shopping.  That happened a lot, you see.  Mom was using the ancestor of a credit card called a “Chargaplate”  – a thin metal plate with Dad’s name and a number embossed on it.  By this time, I knew that this was just an IOU and Dad would pay later.  Mom might have seen me eyeing the chargaplate and said to me, “Now, don’t tell your father I bought this.”

You might say I was a clever child, but this one seemed a no-brainer to me.  I knew darn well that Dad would be writing a check for this amount later in the month – and he wouldn’t be smiling.  One of my earliest memories was Dad cutting up credit cards with a pair of scissors (Chargaplates required tin snips).  Mom would then go back to the store and say she lost them and ask for new ones.  How do I know?  Didn’t I just tell you she dragged me along on shopping trips?  It all ended in Divorce not long after that.

We are trying to get back to swimming here and so, just to even out my criticism of my mother’s spendthriftery, I’ll relate a true story of her Water Safety credentials.  She and Dad were at a party down at the Galveston Yacht Basin where our doctor kept his boat.  Dad was an early adopter of “Bartering” – way before it became a hippie status symbol.  If you wonder why, re-read the paragraph above.

For example, Dad repaired our Doctor’s boat motor in return for the Doc sewing up the wound in my arm.  It took five stitches – I was swinging on a rope tied to a telephone pole.  The rope parted and I wound up hanging by my impaled right arm from a hurricane fence.  All the other kids who had encouraged the Big Guy to swing on that rotten old rope ran like thieves.  Mom came out and “plucked” me off the fence and took me to the Doc.

hurricanefence99

File photo detail of a hurricane fence.  These were universal around the houses in my neighborhood.  The “barbs” at the top were intentional to discourage climbing.  We climbed these pretty much on a daily basis in the summertime.  These days they install the fencing itself “upside-down” so there is just a blunt corner at the top – for obvious reasons.

When Mom brought me home with my arm stitched up, the “backdoor” neighbor had hammered down all those barbs along all her fences – not just the common one.  She was a Catholic with about 8 children.

Anyway, Mom and Dad were – at the Doctor’s invitation – attending a Yacht Basin party.  There was a little boy  – maybe three years old – playing with a dog.  Actually, he was trying to push the poor animal over.  Doggy departed suddenly and the boy plunged into the water of an empty boat slip.  The water is quite deep there, as these were big boats.

My Mother immediately and instinctively jumped in, grabbed the kid and handed him up to Dad who was by that time prone on the deck and reaching down.  The party-goers were stunned and amazed.  The parents of the kid were very thankful.  Mom had her faults, but Dad and I both were very proud of her that day.

Swimming, we were talking about swimming, right?  I learned to swim at an early age and it became a habit.  I was good at it, unlike other sports and swimming does not require a lot of equipment.  Plastic goggles go for about $10 these days.  It is not hard on the ankles, dogs don’t chase you and instead of sweating through a 105° day in Houston-August I was in a pool full of water.

There was swimming in Charles F. Hartman Junior High School (grades 7, 8 and 9), but it came with a very weird requirement.  The excuse was that they did not want wet bathing suits in the lockers because they go all moldy and stink.  The requirement was that you had to swim nude…unclothed, in the buff, in your birthday suit.  So, I would have to strip down and “cavort” with a bunch of naked boys if I wanted to swim?  No thank you very much.  This was not “co-ed”, of course, or I would have reconsidered. That wasn’t the only weird thing about Junior High School, but we are trying desperately to get to the swimming story as the title suggests.

I still went swimming outside school, though – properly attired of course.  We had a membership for a pool club called the Tropicana.  I was actually on their swim team for a while.  Pool clubs were quite common in those days because few houses had anything resembling air-conditioning (Yes, that’s what I said) and summers were Murder in Houston.  The Summers still are, but everything that can hold a living human body inside has A/C now.

The Tropicana was a unique aquatics venue.  It was an indoor pool in a metal building.  If you looked closely, you would find that the building was supported by steel wheels on a railroad track.  When the weather was appropriate, the entire building rolled back and the Tropicana was now an outdoor facility.

There was another quite interesting pool in town, as well.  The part under the diving boards was actually about 15 or 20  feet deep.  That left room at the bottom for a clear plastic hemisphere about five feet in diameter.  This dome was held down by chains connected to the concrete below and air bubbled up from a hole in the bottom beneath the center of the dome.  By that time, I was an accomplished pool denizen and was quite comfortable descending to pop my head in the dome and watch the swimmers around me.   I would occasionally make forays out into the water when I saw coins tumbling down from the pockets of the diving board users.  As often as not, I could re-coup the admission fee and once I had enough left over for a hot dog.  It was best to get there early, because the dome usually filled up with other wannabe scuba divers and became uncomfortably claustrophobic.

PoolDomeThis is a “file photo” of something like that pool dome.

The pressure was considerable higher that deep and ears had to be “popped” by attempted exhalation while pinching the nose.   Ascending afterward also required re-adjustment of the ears and discharge of the expanding air in the lungs.  All this would, of course land the pool’s managers in Court with a cornucopia of lawsuits, these days.  I don’t remember the name or location of this place, but I am quite sure that the “diving bell” feature is no more.

I swam in Austin at the University of Texas in one of three pools there.  In my last semester, I was working in a metal shop and showed up at the dressing room in rusty old jeans, a dirty army-surplus jacket that I wore while welding and worn, old steel toed boots(I had them resoled and I wore them on the Walkabout).  I showered and dressed out for swimming and then afterward, I walked away to class in slacks, a Hawaiian shirt and boat shoes (my Clark Kent mode).

I am still swimming today.  Since we still have the gym membership until unemployment bankrupts me, I swim every day.  I have been building up in distance and I swam 63 laps only this morning – it’s some old guy’s age.  To be clear, a lap is two lengths of the pool (one northbound, one southbound) to arrive at the starting point.  The pool is 25 yards and the total distance is one and three-quarters of a mile.  It takes about two hours.  I am quite sure that the twenty-somethings swimming around me are utterly incapable of such effort.

As you might imagine, swimming laps is extremely boring.  The mind tends to wander and I used to lose count of the laps quite often.  I have a rule that when faced with uncertainty over whether it was 10 or 11 laps (e.g.), I always choose 10.  That way there can be no doubt of the final count as a minimum.  While this has the effect of maximizing the exercise, I found myself forgetting every few laps as my attention drifted.  The logical extension of this problem would have me swimming excessively with a dismally small count.

To remedy this, I have developed several strategies to force myself to remember the correct count.  Visualization:  The brain – or at least MY brain -seems to remember visual clues much better than mere numbers.  So I adopted the habit of counting laps on my fingers in front of my goggled eyes.

So, what do I do when I get to 10?  There is a really clever way to count – unambiguously – to 99 on two hands.  It is a system used by Korean schoolchildren and it is called, “Chisemba” if I remember correctly.

One moment please…

Okay, I don’t find it online, so I will explain it, myself.  Or, rather I will visualize it for you (see photo below)

Chis_1-9

So, we got to 9 on one hand.  Next is a “1” on the left hand to indicate 10 and so on up to 90.

Chis_10……………….Chis_90

You see that we can count all the laps we are likely to need  on two hands.  Only for a brief glance at the push-off, I don’t swim with my hands like that, in case you wondered.  It does make an amusing mental image though.

Now the problem is that sometimes, when distracted by neighboring swimmers (or talkers)  I forget to make the visual count.  So, another form of memory aid is needed to back this one up.  Say we have decided to swim 30 laps.  By the time we get to lap number 3, we have covered 1/10th of the total.  At 5, one 1/6th is done.  Then at lap 6, 1/5th  , at lap 7 ½, 1/4th  at lap 10, 1/3rd, at lap15, one half.  If you need something to fill the long gap between 10 and 15 laps, then 12 laps is 2/5ths.  I might forget the count but remember that I just passed the half mark, and so on.

There are also points along the  way that represent fractions of a mile  (9,18,27 and 36=1 mile).  I used to work in nautical miles so (10,20,30 and 40 =1 nm).  I can also “go metric” and come up with kilometers (11, 22=1k, 33, 44, etc).

In the higher lap counts, there are oddball combinations like ½ a mile and half a kilometer (29) and in case I really get bored (everyday!) there are integer squares (4,9,16,25…) and prime numbers (1,3,5,7,11,13,17…) and 42 (the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything according to The  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

And at the end of the swim, we count down by fractions as well, when 2 laps shy of 30, there is 1/15th remaining,  1 lap is 1/30th, a half lap is 1/60, then 1/120, 1/240, 1/480…etc.  Each of these distances – while small – must take some finite time to accomplish, right?  So, I never finish and I am still in the pool right now reaching out with my index finger toward the side of the pool, trying to cover that infinite series of fractions, yes?

PoolReach

File photo* of a swimmer reaching to finish that infinite number of fractional laps

That is one of Zeno’s Paradoxes.  Zeno was an Ancient Greek who evidently got paid to think up goofy stuff like that.  Where do I sign up for that position?   I may be overqualified!

*Art Nerds among you will recognize Michelangelo’s God Creating Adam currently on permanent loan to the Sistine Chapel.  That is the image that popped into my head when I imagined the infinite series of fractions.  I would have used the Adam portion of the image, since Adam doesn’t have all those Cherubs around him – but Adam is doing the backstroke and is attired for the Charles F. Hartman pool, if you get my drift.

Praecepta Absurde,

Steve