Mendeleev for the digital age.

A couple of evenings ago the roomie and I stumbled across one of those rare treats that makes you believe that the internet is indeed a wonderful place: a production of the University of Nottingham called The Periodic Table of Videos. Fans of Walter Lewin helping you with your 8.01 problem set on MITV will love the man who anchors most of these videos: the crazy-haired and bespectacled Martyn Poliakoff. Most of the videos are just a couple of minutes, but it is easy to get sucked in! I think we watched half a dozen last night.

Man, I miss blowing up hydrogen balloons.

Beginning a new project.

One of the wonderful things about finishing the Ph.D. is the way it frees you up to think about new projects. There are two that have been percolating for me of late: one, which relates to what I’ve come to think of as the “sciences of rural life”—fields like agricultural economics, rural sociology, and large swaths of home economics—and the way they organize and create knowledge; and a second, which deals with the history of the modern office, in particular the clerical work and information organization that support it.

Since beginning my postdoc at the National Museum of American History, I have realized that the Smithsonian has great resources for this second project, and it would be a good idea to start doing some research in that vein while I’m here. I’m thinking in particular about the collection of trade catalogs the museum has, as well as the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, and the Dibner Library. For instance, one of the things I’m really interested in is stenography and shorthand: I found a slew of books and manuals on phonography (the general term for sound-based shorthand systems), as well as such interesting items as the brochures and catalogs for business colleges like Bryant & Stratton in Boston, and the Troy Business College in Troy, NY. These not only give the researcher an idea of the kinds of things that were taught at such institutions, but what the classroom space looked like, and how instruction happened. As such colleges were set up to recreate for their students the experience of working in an office as closely as possible, they offer a wonderful glimpse into how offices of the late nineteenth century were organized.

I’ll be posting more on this subject as I move forward. I’m hoping to offer some samples of interesting items from the archives and libraries that give a sense of what’s available and how someone like me might use it. For now, I should probably be getting to the office myself!

Collections management.

One of the great things about working at a major history museum is the proximity one has to really amazing artifacts. The fellows’ offices are in the basement, close to the loading dock. At first, I was a little disappointed at being in a subterranean lair with no light, far away from the curators’ offices on the upper floors, but I think that, today, I have made my peace with our location. Here’s what did it.

On my way out to eat lunch, I noticed that two enormous wooden crates had appeared in the hallway. Upon close inspection, I saw that they had information written on them.

The first, a crate about five feet by six feet by six feet, read:

SI, NMAH Work + Industry
Control Unit for GM-Fanuc
S-380 Robotic Car Arm

A) 1990.0593
C) 1990.0593.01

The second crate was even more impressive, in both its size and its contents. This one was about four feet by seven feet by ten feet, and on the side was printed:

Medicine + Science
Hanford Nuclear Control Console

A) 1993.0138
C) 1993.0138.02

When I got back from lunch, another crate, this one partially open, was being transported down to the basement. It was unlabeled, but contained another piece of electronics, about the size of the Hanford console, whose purpose I could not ascertain. But: woah.

Of course, each item is labeled with its acquisition and collection number, just like a box in an archive. Except these are huge wooden crates that need several people as well as special machinery to transport. One box, one huge electromechanical artifact at a time, please, researchers. Oh, and I hear that the off-site storage facilities are amazing, just what you’d imagine. I can’t believe I didn’t bring my camera today.

Nonetheless: cool. Very, very, very cool.


We waited in line at Washburn, but it was cloudy, and they ran out of glasses, so we went to the Terrace for a beer. On the shore, we saw a good proportion of the department setting up telescopes and chowing on popcorn and beer. Mike Shank treated us to brats. It stayed cloudy, but the beer and company were good. A few of us left and headed to the bus. By the time I got off at my stop, the sun had come out. I made a pinhole in a piece of paper and tried my best to project it onto another piece of paper, with not much luck. Down the street I saw two people with viewing glasses. I asked if I could see. I did.


History of technology on the street.

On our walk in the Tiergarten on Sunday, we came across this great little open-air museum of gas lanterns situated at the western end of the park. If you were just walking through, you might not notice that all the lanterns are different, but when you stop to look, you see that each one has a little sign on it identifying its origin, type of design, date of manufacture, and other information.

As you soon discover, this is a cooperation between the Deutsches Technikmuseum and some gas companies, to highlight the gaslight era, beautify a public space, and presumably give a nice, happy, nostalgic cast to the natural gas industry. My German is still quite poor, so I was not able to glean much detail about the exhibit from the signs (which are all in German), but as you can see from the map, there are 90 different streetlamps from all over Germany and Europe, gathered along a short stretch of path.

As someone who knows little about the design of gas lanterns, I would have appreciated a little more history-of-technology interpretation. How, exactly, did municipal gaslight systems work? Did all the lamps in a city need to be lit every night, or were there mechanisms for doing this automatically? Where did the gas come from (was it natural gas, coal gas, or…?), and how was it conveyed? What was the relationship between the city’s gaslight system and domestic gas lighting? When exactly was the gaslight era: what ushered it in, and what replaced it? You can certainly figure out the answers to at least some of these questions from the individual lamp plaques themselves, but I would have appreciated more interpretive signage interspersed along the route.

That said, the sheer curiosity of having so many different lamps gathered in one location made me think anew about the gas lamp as artifact, and with my inability to read the signs themselves, I found myself inspecting the different lamps, comparing them, to see if I could discern any important design differences, or figure out what certain mechanisms did. That in and of itself seems to me to be a great accomplishment.

I’m looking forward to making a trip to the museum itself one of these weekends.

Laundry day.

clothesline and shadow
A good washday is a wonderful thing.

Doing the laundry is probably my favorite of household chores, aside of course from cooking.  Laundry is satisfying, and it’s segmented, so you have a chance to do other things at the same time.  And it doesn’t involve stirring up dust, so it spares my allergies.  (Vacuuming and dusting are my least favorite.)

When you are living without a clothes dryer, you do your laundry based on the weather rather than the fullness of the hamper. I always like to dry my clothes outside when I can, and whenever I am living in a place with a clothesline, I always try to plan my washday by the weather in the warmer months. Here in Maine, laundry is always a little adventure, and it disrupts our kitchen space a little bit; but it’s a task I really enjoy in general, and I have a lot of fun with it up here because it involves some really smart little technologies.

The Lady Kenmore at work.
The Lady Kenmore at work.

First, the Lady Kenmore. This Sears washing machine from the 1970s spends most of its time as counterspace in our kitchen, but on washday, it’s rolled out from the wall, its cutting-board cover is removed, and it’s hooked up to the faucet and plugged into an outlet, and the washing begins. I find using the Lady Kenmore a real delight for some reason, one I think has to do with the fact that it isn’t a built-in appliance, but one that you only take out when you need it. I think I like the task of setting it up: it’s roughing it, but not really.  (I guess it hits that sweet spot of do-it-yourself where you feel like you’re more actively engaged in the process, but the marginal effort is small.  I’ve done laundry in the tub, and that just sucks.)  I also think I like the fact that it’s almost a secret: just another unassuming enamel box sitting between the stove and the fridge. And it’s a little workhorse: it just works great. When you’re done, you’ve got a cutting board again.

The pulley and the pin bag: two of my favorite laundry technologies.
Two of my favorite laundry technologies.

The next thing I love is hanging out the wash. This involves two great and underappreciated tools: the pulley clothesline and the clothespin bag. The bag hooks onto the pulley or the line, so your clothespins are right there at hand. (When I was growing up, we did not have one of these—the pins were all in a little brown plastic basket that sat on the porch rail—so this is a true delight for me.) The pulley clothesline, though, is the real treat: this is the gold standard of clotheslines, because it moves instead of you. (Early 20th-century home economists probably loved it for this reason.  I can just imagine home demonstration agents going around the county, advocating the use of pulley clotheslines to farm wives.)  The one we have here is way too short, but the length is simply a limitation of our yard. (The one I grew up with was the classic backyard line: from back porch to a high post at the far end of the long skinny lot. Our street was full of pulley clotheslines, and on a fine summer day you could look all the way down the block through the backyards and see the wash drying.)

A well-ordered clothesline.
A well-ordered clothesline.

Though the pulley line is the best, it requires forethought, as it’s usually high up enough that you can’t just go pulling items down as they dry and replacing them with items from the next load. You have to plan. It’s a FILO stack, so the items that take the longest to dry go out first, and the quickest-drying items go on last, with a gradient in between. I’ve always found it best to sort as you go, keeping pants, shirts, underwear, and pairs of socks together: this makes it so you can fold easily as you remove items from the line. Depending on the height of your line and its location, you may need to take other factors into account, such as the weight of the items (if you put the heaviest ones in the middle, you may weigh the line down too far, so that clothes are brushing the ground) or what parts of the line will be in direct sun. Because the line here is so short and low, and partly shaded by the oak tree and the house, depending on the time of day, my standard longest-drying-first method needs modification each time; but because I can reach the line from the ground, if I screw up, I can go and move things around without taking everything off in succession. This was not a luxury I had growing up, but it was offset by the fact that our line could handle two loads of wash at a time.

Someday, I shall have such a clothesline once more. For now, I am simply glad to have a pulley clothesline again.

The Model M springs back.

I heard this story on the return of the IBM Model M keyboard on NPR this afternoon, and (after being completely enraptured for the duration) immediately called Scottoway, who has given a similar disquisition on many occasions, and with whom I have a running conversation about tactile feedback in user interfaces. The story gets this well, and I was pleased to read the piece that accompanies the piece on the web site.
All I have to say, though, is that I need to buy one of these new Model Ms (made by Unicomp in Lexington, KY). Because — as I said to Paul in the car today as soon as the story was over — I need to write my dissertation on it.

Three things from Sunday’s paper.

NUMBER ONE. Michael Pollan is at it again, cluing us into why we should really give a care. A good piece, as usual, and the hopeful message is both appreciated and right-on; but he still has no answer to the social-justice side of the question — my perennial complaint when it comes to his recent work on food, agriculture, environment, and health. Yes, it would be fantastic if we could all start gardening, but isn’t that assuming a lot of your readership? Of course, when you’re writing for the New York Times Magazine, I suppose you have the luxury of not having to consider the viewpoint of a mom on food stamps. Maybe his next book will get to this.
(On a historical note, it might be worth mentioning the demographic changes in the United States since the last time victory gardens provided a substantial proportion of the American food supply, not just in terms of population, but in terms of rural/urban percentages and the like. Still, Pollan’s usually pretty good with the history side of things, which is presumably why I got to put not one but two of his books on my Environmental History prelim list. That’ll be a welcome relief.)
NUMBER TWO. Do you remember Bill Nye? The Science Guy? Well, apparently he is even more awesome than you thought. (Also, I think this might be a preview of Scottoway in later life — anyone else get that sense?)
NUMBER THREE. Bees are awesome. Someday I am going to write a book about apiculture. In the meantime, I am simply going to make a note of every interesting thing I see, hear, read, or otherwise encounter about our good friends apis mellifera. This is one of them.
Good night!

Revenge of the drunken robots.

The ‘Tute is suing Frank Gehry for design and construction flaws in Building 32. I can’t say I’m surprised, and I can’t say that I have much sympathy for the defendant: it’s a cool building, sure, but, like so many high-profile architectural projects, it is ridden with problems that render its price tag completely preposterous. Of course, MIT should have known from his track record that Gehry generally cares more about concept than about little problems like drainage, leaking, ice formation, specularity and albedo, and the cumulative effects of what we folks outside of Los Angeles like to call “weather” and “the seasons.” Conceptually and spatially, Building 32 largely works (though it has hardly been without problems — major and minor — as well as complaints from its residents). In the bricks-and-mortar sense, though, there have been clear and obvious issues right from the beginning. When it was being built, I would wonder every day that I walked past just what the construction workers thought about what they were making. I always figured there was a lot of eye-rolling and head-scratching, and I have to say that they had a great deal of empathy from me. When it was completed, I was pleasantly surprised: it didn’t totally suck, as I thought it was going to, though it did have a fair number of detrimental effects on the east side of campus due to the Institute’s slavish promotion of the building to the neglect of other facilities that were more important to, say, students who actually lived over there. But we’ll just set that aside for now.
The thing that makes me laugh this rather dark laugh is knowledge of what “The Stata Center” replaced: a complex of shoddily constructed, hastily put together (it was war, after all), downright ugly interconnected four-story shacks called Building 20, which doubtless cost a very meager fraction of what stands there now. A stranger passing by these structures would hardly have guessed that video games, radar, and a host of other important technologies were conceived and created there, amidst an environment of unfettered creativity that had little to do with how the building looked (it looked atrocious) but almost everything to do with its residents’ ability to freely modify their environment as they saw fit, precisely because nobody at the top cared about what they did to that crappy complex of buildings: it was always just about to be torn down anyway. When they did finally slate 20 for demolition, there was a huge outpouring of protest from current and former residents, who came back to reminisce about the time they spent at what had come to be known as the Magical Incubator.
Gehry’s architectural task was to design something that would emulate — and, ideally, recreate — the no-holds-barred creative environment that had germinated and thrived in Building 20, combined with the sense of activity and connectivity embodied by the Infinite Corridor of the Main Group — and to make it all look nice. But, frankly, there are just some things you can’t design into a building, especially when aesthetic considerations start to take precedence over the ability of individuals to do their work. For instance, when one of my friends and the lab he worked for moved their operations from a tiny office underneath 35-225 (literally underneath — you could see the tiers of the lecture hall in the tapering ceiling) where they built autonomous helicopters into Building 32, they received a memo telling them that CRT monitors were not allowed into the building because of the architect’s specifications. Now, seriously: who on earth would be so idiotic as to ask a bunch of MIT engineers to get rid of their old equipment? Had Gehry ever ventured into any MIT basement corridor? Had he actually been inside a lab?
Don’t get me wrong: I care a great deal for good architecture, and there are spaces in Building 32 that really do make the spirit soar, and that made me very excited to be at a place that could afford to construct such a building. But there are problems that arise when the focus is directed more towards the name on the cornerstone than it is on the people who will be living and working in the building — just look at The Sponge. I think there’s some middle ground, and I hope that MIT is able to find it. Perhaps they did with Building 46 — it did look pretty cool — but I haven’t been there and I just don’t know what the response has been.
And of course Rod Brooks is the one defending Stata and Gehry. He makes those drunken robots.