Archive for September, 2011

Tool Crib Stool: Phase 2

September 29, 2011 2 comments

I got in to work the other day and found that Joel had, true to his word, upholstered the new tool crib stool over the weekend.


Behold the paddedness.  It really helps, too.  My six-hour day (Wednesday) is still a pretty darn long one, but the days when I’m only in here three hours, it’s a big help.  And it does mean that the Long Day is only partially long, if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase.

Our next step is to add some sort of foot rest that’s a bit better than the stretchers in the steel structure.  They’re too close to the vertical axis for long-term comfort; I can hook my heels on them, but the position makes my hips sore after a while.

I’m thinking a metal ring, maybe three or four inches more in diameter than the diagonal of the base at about the level of the upper stretchers, is the way to go.  We’ve got the equipment in here for bending round stock to a particular radius, and once the circle is made it’s just a question of whipping up some brackets and welding the lot together.  I can’t weld – the curriculum recommends a class they do for it over at EMCC, but it’s only offered in the spring and I haven’t taken it yet – but Joel can.  We just need to finalize a design.

The temptation is very strong to go this weekend and do it up proper-like in Solid Edge, make some process sheets, and generally go all Real Engineer on it.  I’m not taking a Machine Tool class this semester, but it might be worth a few impress-the-boss points anyway, and it’d be a nice refresher of stuff I did last semester.  Keep me sharp for the next CAD class, which is coming this spring.

People Who Are Unclear on the Concept

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m just having one of those days where everyone I see around me is Doing It Wrong and I want to make them pay.  Everything gets on my nerves, even – especially – stuff that would normally just go by me.

UMaine has a campus-wide no-smoking policy.  Does that prevent the kids from ambling around campus with cigarettes stuck in their mouths or congregating in the little parking lot between Boardman Hall and the MTL to smoke up a storm between classes?  The hell it does.  I’ve even seen faculty members hanging around out there having a butt.  Way to set an example, prof.

(As an aside, just the fact that there still are normal-age college students who smoke in the year 2011 is enough to rile me up on a day like this.  My grandfather’s generation didn’t know any better, but, uh, yeah, kids, we’ve known that smoking is bad for you for quite a while now, and you’re supposed to be the smart ones, you got into college.  What the hell is wrong with you?)

Whenever I’m walking to class on a day like today and I meet someone coming the other way who is smoking, I have a very brief but entirely real desire to shoot him (and I hate to seem sexist here, but statistically speaking it is pretty much always a guy) in the head.  It only lasts something like a nanosecond – not nearly long enough to be acted on, but long enough for me to recognize that I felt it – but it’s an entirely genuine desire for the instant it lasts.  So it’s a good thing I don’t have some instantaneously lethal superpower, like Destructo-Vision or something.


The Boardman lot is tiny and in the center of campus, so it’s (apart from the nebulous and inevitable SERVICE VEHICLE ONLY space) entirely composed of handicapped parking spaces.  (Seems funny when written out that way.  Like they’re parking spaces that can’t do everything regular parking spaces do because of some illness or injury.)  Not that this stops anybody from parking in it.  In fact, what it does is make them park more annoyingly than if they’d just manned up and parked in one of the wheelchair-marked spaces illegally.  To avoid doing that, they park out in the aisle, or athwart the rear entrance to Boardman, or – my favorite – in the stripey areas between the HC spaces, figuring that if they’re not parked on a wheelchair icon, it must be OK.  I want to set these people’s cars on fire.

My favorite, though, was the guy on the motorcycle who pulled up and parked in the stripey area next to my car as I was getting ready to leave.  I tried to point out in the most diplomatic way possible (i.e., I did not lead with “hey, jackwad, I know you already know this and are just ignoring it because it would inconvenience you, but”) that that’s not what the stripey area is for, and he offered to do pugilism with me.  Seriously.  He didn’t sound particularly psychotic or anything, he just seemed to think it was the next logical phase for the discussion to take: “You wanna fight about it?”  It was like being back in the third grade, with its matter-of-fact attitude toward casual violence.

If I were a bona fide wheelchair-bound Disabled Person, and I had one of those vans with the powered platform thing that comes out of the side, I would deploy it if someone did that to me.  Bad move, brutha!  I need that space and I have hydraulics.  That’ll buff right out.

Man.  I am just in a grumpy mood today.  Lingering aftereffect of that physics test, I think.  The more I think about the way the instructor grades those, the more annoyed I get.  Also, I had one of my Paralytically Shy Mumbling Guy days this afternoon in German class, which is not a class in which one can excel by being a shy mumbler, set off by the fact that I tried to speak up in history class in the morning and there were suddenly no words.  I was trying to explain why being bang in the middle of the Med conveyed strategic significance on Malta in the Napoleonic era – which of course has to do with its location as regards sail traffic, as a way station between Gibraltar and Alexandria and/or Sicily and Tripoli, a watering stop, the presence of neutral medical facilities etc., but all that would come out was, “Uhhhhhhhh… well… look.  It’s in the middle.”

So basically I’m having the kind of day where I very strongly suspect my teachers all think I’m an imbecile and I’m not entirely certain they’d be wrong about that, and it’s causing me to go into these towering but silent rages about stupid stuff like people parking on the stripes and smoking where they’re not supposed to.  And you get to read all about it because this is my blog and this is what I’m blogging today.  Sigh.

Also also: It is a bit past 7 PM (I just heard the bell out in Cloke Plaza) and, as far as I can tell from the crib, it is fully dark outside.  Speaking as a seasonal affective: Labor Day is a dumb place on the calendar to put the start of the school year.  (Yes, I know, relic of our agrarian past, kids needed on the farm during the summer, etc. etc.  And our workday is still set up to accommodate the optimal lighting conditions in 18th-century textile mills, too.)

Better Late, etc.

September 21, 2011 2 comments

I just received official notification that I’m on the Dean’s List  for Spring 2011 from my department head.

This is not a complaint.  I’m actually amused that a body which is not connected with the University in any way (the Maine Senate) beat him to it by nearly four months.  On the other hand, Dr. Dunning is busy running the School of Engineering Technology, while the Senate is just there to hamper the House and that probably leaves them with a lot of free time in the summer, so…

Ah, well, I doubt either of them will have the opportunity to congratulate me for perfect performance this semester.  Last night was the first exam in Physics I and I was hard-pressed to score an 80.  Mind you, I’ll have a chance to take it again.  In fact, technically speaking I’ll have at least four, possibly as many as eight, chances to take it again.  But still, not a spectacular start.  The instructor uses a computerized testing tool that reminds me unpleasantly of the way that astronomy lab I did so poorly in was run.  It wants a number, and it doesn’t care how you got it or where your calculations may have gone wrong.

Remember when we were kids and we felt a deep-rooted dread of the phrase "show your work" on math tests?  Turns out there’s actually a really good reason for doing that…

Ah, well.  Early days yet.

Tool Crib Update

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I got in for my afternoon shift today and discovered that DSS had already reclaimed their extra stool – probably for fear that if they left it any longer we’d dismantle it for parts.

Which, to be fair, we had considered.

Military History So Far

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

We spent the first week of HTY 279, European Military History, defining our terms.  We had to start with what military history is, then what “modern” is, we even spent a little while on what “European” means.  In the second week we started with some battles and personages who constitute the sort of cusp of what Prof. Miller, at least, holds to constitute modern European military history – figures like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1594-1632) and the Battle of Lützen, in which he was killed.  None of that is likely to be all that interesting to readers who are not themselves studying military history, though, so we’ll skip over that.

Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about the reading for this course.  The reading list for HTY 279 is pretty extensive; the class doesn’t have a textbook, as such, but there are a number of things we’re responsible for getting through in the course of the semester.  Some of them, like Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, are war memoirs I’ve already read (though I think I’ve read the wrong translation of Jünger for this course).  Others, like Clausewitz’s On War, are standards works in the field that I haven’t actually read, but have seen mentioned often in things I have read.


And then there’s What Is Military History?, the cover designers of which I don’t think were taking the task entirely seriously.

This is a slim volume that attempts to answer the question posed in its title, but does so in such a detached and scholarly manner that it’s almost impossible to engage with in any meaningful way.  It reminds me a little of John Clute’s introduction to the Old Earth Books reprints of E.E. Smith’s Lensman books, back in the late ‘90s.  Clute is a professional literary critic whose area of specialty is science fiction, and his introductions to the Lensman novels are essentially Learned Critiques of same, as if they’ve just been published and Clute is assessing their literary merit for the edification of other scholars, which means that what isn’t pretension is impenetrable jargon.  I distinctly remember the phrase “penis swamp” appearing at one point in his introduction to Galactic Patrol.

What Is Military History? isn’t quite that weird, because its subject matter isn’t quite so esoteric in its own right, but it does constitute a pretty dry bowl of kibble as intellectual sustenance goes.  Here’s an example:

In military history, many different crops are still springing from the soil of historical evidence fertilized by new theoretical and methodological approaches, and this rough guide to current controveries can be neither complete nor remain current.  Students exploring new work in these fields or work in other areas of military history can usually figure out where a book they are reading falls with respect to previous work by paying attention to the book’s preface or introduction.  Historians usually provide their own historiographical context in one of these places in order to point out how what they are doing is new, innovative, or otherwise noteworthy.  Careful reading of these historiographical introductions, informed by knowledge of the basic philosophical, methodological, and historiographical contours of military history that this book tries to provide, should allow students to explore new fields of military history more effectively.

All of that to say, “If you want to know what new angle the author of a book you’re reading thinks he’s coming from, read the introduction.”  It’s like this for 116 pages.  A long day at the office.

But I don’t mind.  The thing that bothers me is: Someone keeps moving my chair.

No, seriously.  This class is held in one of the big lecture halls in Little Hall, a building which was designed, as Pratchett and Gaiman speculated of Milton Keynes, to foster unconscious dread and hopelessness in the human mind.  Little is blessed with the most bizarre floorplan I’ve had the privilege of encountering, far outstripping the previous holder of this personal record (Fuller Labs at WPI).  It has half-floors.  Instructors have to provide directions to their offices on the syllabus, because if you just had the room number you would never find them.  The giant lecture halls have entrances at the back, on the ground floor, but the front of the room is in the basement.  Aha, you think, if you’re a student who’s just hurt his ankle, that must be where you enter the room if you need to use the elevator, but in the case of Little 140 you’d be wrong!  Those doors exit into a dark and gloomy hallway (turn off lights to save electricity!) which leads ultimately to… a stairwell.  There is a very similar gloomy hallway on the other end of the building that does involve the elevator, but if the two are connected in any way, I have yet to find it.  I suspect a student requiring level floor access would have to take the elevator to that other hallway, then cross through the back of the room in lecture halls 110, 120, and 130, before arriving at the first hallway and into 140.

And every time I arrive at 140 for class, my chair is out in that hallway.  This is annoying to me; on days when I’m running a tad bit late it’s also annoying to Prof. Miller, to the point where yesterday, when for various reasons I realized that I’d be arriving at 11:05, I decided to just punt rather than disrupt the class moving furniture around.  Fortunately, the big in-class discussion of What Is Military History? is tomorrow.

I wouldn’t want to miss that.

Engineers: We Make Stuff Better

September 14, 2011 2 comments

IMG_20110914_152116 In the MTL tool crib, there is a window where the on-duty tool guy sits, and at that window is a stool.  It’s an unremarkable object, as these things go, just a few bits of metal and a wooden disc manufactured, as the logo on the underside of the seat reveals, by Angle Steel, Inc., of Plainwell, Michigan.  There is only one real problem with it:

It’s not very comfortable.

Last week, noting that I didn’t seem to be enjoying it much, Joel (my boss, the machine tool instructor, and the MTL building manager) asked if I’d prefer something a little more substantial and padded.  I said I would, and he said it was OK with him if I got in touch with Disabled Student Services, since they handle special-furniture requests on campus, and made such a request in the department’s name.  So I did.

Monday I came in for my night lab shift and found… a second, identical Angle Steel stool, with a tag on it saying “FOR BEN HUTCHINS, MTL CRIB”.  Apart from the tag and a label with the international accessibility symbol on it (see above), it was exactly the same as the one we already had.

So I sent a note to the grad student in charge of furniture at DSS, apologizing for not being clear enough in my initial email and noting that we had one of those already, what we were hoping for was something a bit more upholstered.  His response was very polite, but basically boiled down to, “That’s what we’ve got.  Talk to your department’s purchasing person if you want something swankier.”

Today I got in for my afternoon shift, when, unlike in the evenings, Joel is here, and we got to talking about the Stool Situation.  I said I’d found a couple of likely candidates online, but then I said, “It’s a little silly for us to pay $200 for a heavy-duty padded stool, I mean, this is a machine shop.  Why don’t we build one?”

He went away to help a couple of the afternoon students cut some threads, I dispensed tools, and we both thought about it for an hour or so, and then he came back and said, “OK, let’s give it a shot.”

IMG_20110914_152054 The first thing we decided was that we didn’t need to start from scratch.  The Angle Steel stool’s metal structure is plenty adequate for our purposes; it just needs a better seating surface.  So we dismantled one of the Angle Steel stools, which was a simple matter of unscrewing the wooden disc from the top of the frame.

Then Joel went and found a donor chair somewhere else in the building (he’s the MTL facility manager, remember, he can do that). IMG_20110914_164054 This was a regular wooden chair, like you would find in a kitchen.  We actually looked at a couple of them and decided that one would come apart more easily, and yield a part more suitable to the purpose, than the other.   So Joel knocked out the stretchers, to make getting the drill in there easier, and we unscrewed the seat base from our donor chair.  Then it was a relatively simple matter of marking out a radius (that’s what’s going on with the big metal ring and the square board in the photo above) and trimming the corners of the seat base a bit.

The result is not much different from the old version, but with a more substantial seating area, and provides a better platform for adding upholstery later, which Joel is rather keen to do once he has a chance to assemble the materials.


(You may notice that it’s turned so that what was the back of the seat when it was part of a chair is now facing toward the tool window workbench, at right.  This is because it’s actually more comfortable that way; we didn’t radius the front corners enough.  But we may not bother, since it works fine backward, the extra corner area provides more rear support, and once it’s padded the slight contour planed into the wood, from when it was a chair, won’t be relevant any more.)

I’m sitting on it right now for my night lab shift, and I have to confess it’s not that much better than the old version.  I mean, it’s still hard and there’s still not much of anyplace to put my feet.  Still, it does offer better support, and once it’s upholstered it should be very nice indeed.  And besides – it’s an engineering project!

Professor Teller’s Infernal Machine

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment
This week’s task in INT 400 was to identify a technological advancement made since 1945 that’s held to have "changed the world" and then discuss whether we thought it actually had.  So I did.


It’s relatively rare to run across a technological advancement that is genuinely without precedent – though it depends on how one interprets "precedent".  Jet aircraft shrank the world, but no more so in their time, culturally speaking, than did proper seagoing ships (as opposed to the Mediterranean coastal vessels of Roman times) in the 15th century.  Satellite telecommunications and the Internet have only continued the "annihilation of space" begun by the Morse electric telegraph in 1844 (and Morse’s telegraph had forerunners of its own).  Computers can do a lot of math fast, but before them were computers – people who did a lot of math slowly.  Television is basically just radio with illustrations.  Even space travel is, at its heart, the same activity as the great exploratory sea voyages of the 16th century, only with smaller crews and in a different direction.

All of these technologies have a common trait: They’re held to have revolutionized the world, but if one looks more closely, one sees that what they’ve really done is enabled people to do things they were already doing, but faster, with greater efficiency, and/or on a larger scale than before.

Except one: the thermonuclear bomb.

"Hold on," I hear you say.  "Nuclear weapons are just bigger, more powerful versions of, well, bombs.  People had been using those for centuries before they came along.  Nuclear bombs allow for warfare with explosive weapons on a bigger scale than before – you just disproved your own point."  That’s true, but there’s an unintended consequence of that bigger scale that, I believe, is genuinely without precedent and qualifies nuclear arms for the unique status I’m ascribing to them here.  Before nuclear weapons, there was no way for human agencies, acting of their own accord, to threaten the entirety of human civilization.  We’d never developed a technology before that, if mishandled, could potentially end the whole story at a stroke.  No one had ever conceived of such a thing except in apocalyptic myth.  Not even its precursor, the atomic bomb – awesome in its own right – held the potential for such astonishing destruction… and then, in 1952, there it was.  Suddenly, with the push of a button at a testing range in the Pacific, the H-bomb was born and the whole game of international relations changed.

Thermonuclear weapons gave the world the concept of mutually assured destruction, which had never before been a factor in politics, military strategy, or civil policy.  It forced a near-total reassessment of what warfare was or meant.  Not even gunpowder did that.  Nothing ever had, and it’s unlikely that anything will again.  How do you top "total obliteration" on the potential-consequences scale?