Thursday, February 28, 2013

Another photo tour

For this photo tour, we went to the Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol, RI. The picture on the right shows one of the farm's ewes and the two lambs she had recently (one is shy, you'll see it if you click on the picture to expand it). And, once again, it was my wife who signed us up for this fun event. This was a special day at the farm where they showed us how they made maple sugar back in the 17th Century. They told us that the use of maple syrup is a relatively new phenomenon (as far as its every day use - native people knew how to make maple syrup before the Europeans arrived). But the need for sugar and the difficulty of importing cane sugar caused the making of maple sugar (not maple syrup) to be a rising industry in colonial times. Places far from sea ports couldn't get the sugar from the Caribbean as easily so they made maple sugar. Another interesting fact was that they used sugar more as a spice back then rather than the over-used ingredient as we do today.

First, you have to tap the tree. Interestingly, you don't need Sugar Maple trees for this. Almost any maple will do and here on this farm they have stands of Norway Maples so that's what they use. Here's my son, Evan (in the green cap), taking a turn at screwing in the auger Notice it is angled up so the sap flows down. The auger makes a small hole in the tree. The folks at the farm said they don't need to worry about damaging the tree as long as the holes are small and there aren't many taps. The trees will heal themselves and there is no need to patch up the hole later. In fact, patching the hole seals in any bacteria or molds that may have gotten into the hole during the process.

Next, you have to put in the spile which is the name they give the small drain that transfers the sap out of the tree and allows it to run out of the tree far enough to drip into a collector. Here our friendly farm worker (how could he be so nice when it was so cold that day?) carefully taps the wooden spile with a wooden mallet. Modern farms would use stainless steel spiles but the Coggeshall Farm tried to be as authentic as possible and makes their own wooden spiles. The wooden mallet lessens the chance of splitting the wood. Notice how he angles the spile at the same angle the hole was tapped. You have to get it right or the spile will break or split.
This next picture shows that they really go all out to be authentic and make their own collecting bucket by hollowing out a large piece of tree trunk. They used an adz to remove pieces of wood bit by bit. These guys must have incredible patience. This tap has been going for a while and the drips were coming about once every two seconds. It would take quite a long time. You can see that these wooden farm-made spiles aren't perfect and allow some of the sap to leak down the trunk of the tree. You can see that, as with all technology, there is always room for improvement and there are always lots of areas for creative people to improve products.

The final picture shows the two farm workers stoking up the fire. They will have to boil down the sap (in large cast iron kettles) for a long time to end up with maple sugar. Plus, it was a very cold day and the fire helped to warm up glove-less fingers. I don't know how they did it. I had a heavy jacket and gloves and I was freezing.

In case you are interested in tapping your own trees and making syrup, here are a couple of links.

Making Maple Syrup at University of Cincinnati Clermont College

Tap My Trees

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I'm 62 years old today

The cake for my 62nd birthday
This has been one of my longer droughts in writing blog posts. I wrote my last one 9 days ago. Where has the time gone? Well, I could say that for my whole life. Today is my birthday and where have the last 62 years gone?

For the first 24 years of my life, I lived in Western Pennsylvania. I was born, raised and went to school there. I also got my first traffic ticket there. I only lived outside Western Pennsylvania when I went to college in Central Pennsylvania. Then, after graduating, I spent the next 3 years in Northern Virginia. I moved because my first real job was there. I also got a traffic ticket there. Finally, I moved to Massachusetts and have lived here ever since. I bought my first house here, met and married my wife here and we had our children here. I also got a traffic ticket here.

An interesting fact is that all three states I've lived in do not call themselves "states" but commonwealths. Did you know there is one more commonwealth in the United States? In case you don't know, and you haven't clicked on the link yet, it's Kentucky. I've never been there and may not ever get there - I don't need another traffic ticket.

I feel happier than I've ever felt in my life. I have a wonderful wife, two terrific children, a lovely mother-in-law and, if I could get my mother to move here from Pennsylvania, I'd have it all. Getting her to pull up roots and move here is tough, though. I don't think she wants a traffic ticket, either.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A nice place to stay in Boston

Continuing on my theme of the two days my wife and I spent in Boston for a battery of tests my wife had to undergo at the Boston Medical Center, I want to show you where we stayed the night during that trip. As you can see in the picture, our hotel was called The Roundhouse Suites. Yes, it really is round. It is part of the Best Western franchise. It was originally built in the 1800's to store gas for use in Boston. I don't know when it was converted to a hotel but it wasn't recently. I didn't smell any gas.

The room was wonderful. It was really two rooms with a small sitting room with a couch, large screen TV and small stand with a refrigerator and microwave. The bedroom had a smaller TV and the bathroom was quite nice, too. It was kind of sad that we only got to stay there one night. And we were so exhausted from having to get up at 4 AM that morning to get there for the first round of tests that we didn't stay up long after the final test of the first day. We did go out to eat that evening and had a great meal but couldn't wait to get back to the room and go to bed. It was going to be another hard day the next day (for my wife at least) and it was going to be a great night for sleeping.

Until the fire alarm went off around 10:30 that night! We were both asleep. We heard a funny noise outside our room first. Then the alarm in our room went off. We both groaned, "Oh, no! It can't be." But it was. At first we thought that it must be a false alarm or a test of some sort. But it kept going and going. We dragged ourselves out of bed and grabbed our bags even though they tell you not to stop for anything. At least we did one right thing - we didn't try to take the elevator down the four floors to the street. We took the stairs. When we got to the lobby, everyone was standing around so we knew it must be a false alarm. We waited for a few minutes as the firemen double-checked and the manager told us that it was just a false alarm and we could go back to our rooms.

I have to admit that if it had been a real fire, we could have possibly been in a lot of trouble. Thankfully, we just got a warning. We'll do better next time. We were both exhausted the next day because, of course, we couldn't go right back to sleep after being startled like that. It never felt so good to get home to sleep in our own bed.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The best calzone I've ever had

My wife, Cindy, had to go to Boston on Monday and Tuesday this week for medical tests at Boston Medical Center and I went with her. She had to deal with the annoyance, discomfort and, sometimes, pain of the tests while I sat there reading a book. These were follow-up tests to the ones I mentioned  in my post "Amyloidosis".

So, after the first morning's tests were done, we had hoped to go somewhere nice so Cindy could relax. But we didn't have enough time to go far and it was very cold and windy so we didn't want to walk far, either. We saw the place pictured here and thought it looked good. I ordered a Greek calzone and I have to say it was the best calzone I've ever had! The crust was fluffy and light, it was sliced into manageable pieces and it had cheese dribbled over it.Cindy just had a tuna sandwich and enjoyed that, too. But that calzone!

So, if you're ever on Harrison Avenue in the Roxbury section of Boston, it's at #851 just off Massachusetts Avenue. Give it a try. They were so nice and seemed genuinely pleased when I told them how much I liked my lunch. Here is their website (not much there) and their menu at grubhub.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Groundhog Day

Yesterday, I (jokingly) wondered if I could get out of Groundhog Day because I'd been kind to my neighbor. But in reality, we aren't saved by good works.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT
But, of course, we should also be doing good works because of so much good that has been done for us. We prove our faith by the actions we take.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. James 1:22 NLT
Escaping Groundhog Day isn't the same as being saved. In the movie, Phil got to continue his life because he learned lessons about life and learned to love. We are saved because we are loved and given the gift of salvation and we accept it. We do good because we believe - if we truly believe.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Groundhog day?

"Then put your little hand in mine
There ain't no hill or mountain we can't climb.

I got you babe.
I got you babe.
I got you babe.
I got you babe ..."

Good grief. I can't stop. Can I help someone? I did sweep the snow off my neighbor's porch this morning. Is that enough?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Groundhog Day

We just finished watching the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot. Again. We've been watching it on Groundhog Day for the last few years. It is one of my (and my family's) favorite movies...

Sorry, this is kind of a dumb joke. I'll stop now.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Groundhog Day

We just finished watching the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot. Again. We've been watching it on Groundhog Day for the last few years. It is one of my (and my family's) favorite movies. I only saw part of the movie the first time and I was very confused. I didn't know the story beforehand and thought they were making a mistake in showing the movie. I thought the TV station got the parts mixed up! Once I realized what was going on, I really enjoyed it. It's part comedy but it also has some deep parts. As I've seen it through the years, I find new things in it to appreciate each time. This is the first time, for instance, that I realized that no matter how long he tried, he was unable to save the life of an old homeless man.

There are a lot of fun facts about this movie but one of the most amazing was that in his DVD commentary for the movie, I've heard, director Harold Ramis says that at one point it was envisioned that Phil's stay in Groundhog Day and in Punxsutawney lasts about 10,000 years in real time. He would keep track of time by reading a page of a book a day and eventually would read through all the books in the town's library. This was later changed to be 10 years (although that is never explicitly mentioned). Later, Mr. Ramis says he thinks it would take more like 30 or 40 years for Phil to learn all the things he does in the movie. Still quite amazing.

Another of the appealing aspects to this movie is that I think a lot of us have felt we're living out Groundhog Day ourselves. Doing the same things over and over and trapped into a routine. The way Phil finally breaks out of his loop is a good way for us to break our bad routines, too - becoming less self-centered, realizing his 'curse' is really a chance to help others, and find true love.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Another horrible day in history due to an engineering failure

STS-107 flight insignia
I didn't realize the two Space Shuttle disasters happened around the same time of the year. The Challenger Disaster happened on January 28, 1986 while the Columbia Disaster happened on this day - seven years later in 2003. The time between the two was long enough for us to think all the problems had been solved. The problem that destroyed Challenger and killed her seven astronauts had been solved. But a new problem arose with Columbia.

Like with Challenger, Columbia's problems started at launch. With Challenger, though, it didn't take long for the problem to escalate from a leak in a tank to the destruction of the vehicle. With Columbia, the initial problem went unnoticed for 16 days - until the craft had completed its mission and was on its way home.

On launch, a piece of insulation broke off and hit the heat shielding tiles on the wing of the spacecraft damaging one of them. With that damage, the wing was no longer protected from the heat of re-entry. Hot gasses entered the wing through the damaged area and destroyed the wing from the inside. Once that happened, Columbia's fate and the lives of her crew were sealed.

This was another case of an engineering failure that was made worse by bad decisions from the managers. As I said in my previous post about the Challenger Disaster, "It seems that disasters of this magnitude are not usually the result of one mistake. They are the result of cascading mistakes." Damage from dislodged insulation was known to happen before this time. It should have been studied and solved then. But even without that, the dislodged piece of foam was observed on launch day and some engineers were concerned about it but, again, nothing was done. There is a very good write-up of this disaster in the Wikipedia article, "Space Shuttle Columbia disaster". There you will see that if the investigation had been allowed to continue, they could have found ways to either repair the damage or save the astronauts by allowing them to stay on the International Space Station until another Shuttle could come to rescue them.

I'm sorry that so many of my articles about the history of engineering are about engineering failures. I do believe it is important that we learn from our mistakes. But, I will try to focus more on the triumphs of our profession. It's also good to celebrate the things that go right. We need to face the future with the hope that we can make things better.