Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Birds in the Snow

It snowed the other day.

The birds came in hoards to the feeder we have hanging over the deck.

The tree to the feeder’s left is the staging area where the birds all land and sit and wait their turn at the feeder.

I was able to get a lot of pictures of them waiting in that tree.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

La Carte Fidélité


Here is another Screen Saver excerpt.

Grocery shopping in Paris is always an adventure for me.

There was the time when Champion had recently implemented a frequent shopper card.

The checkout clerks always asked if you had a Champion card before they toted up the final tally.  I had been saying "non", because I didn’t have a Champion card.

But I did have two frequent shopper cards from groceries in the United States, so I knew that those cards could save significant money. With every “non” I had thought about asking how to get one because I knew that the card could save a lot of money, if only I had had one. 

But that idea died every time it occurred to me because, although I was sure I would be able to frame the request in French, I was equally sure that I would be unable to understand whatever they might say in reply. I was in that no man’s land where one is able to "say" things but not able to "hear" things. I knew that if I said “non, mais comment peut on?” they would reply to me and I would stand gaping for understanding like some gigantic toad who had mistakenly forsaken the safety of the underside of some rock.

I was also reasonably sure that that there would be subtlety and nuance associated with the request for a card and its related processes that would be beyond my cultural ability to grasp or understand.

So one day I was checking out. I had several bottles of Corbierre. I had bought bottles of the same wine several times previously because the wine was really cheap and really good. I had figured out that there was a discount available off the price at the register if one had a carte Champion. After the ritual “vous avez une carte Champion?” I had said “non, Madame, merci”. She had said something else in response.  I was in the process of formulating something pleasant sounding but indecipherable when I realized that she had asked me if I would like to get “une carte Champion”.  Since something was about to come out of my mouth anyway, the easiest thing to do seemed to be to say “oui, merci”.

Suddenly without thinking I had thrust myself center stage in the checkout line. I had had illusions of being referred to the service desk, which was right behind me. That thought had loomed as disastrous enough of an option, but much to my horror the checkout clerk started telling me about the application form, which she was handing to me to fill out. Meanwhile the shoppers behind me in line would have to wait while I filled out the form.

The young woman immediately behind me had already bumped me purposefully several times with her leather shopping bag, to what purpose I had been unable to conclude, but she was obviously upset about something, perhaps about me, perhaps about something else, one never knew in a Parisian checkout line.

Perhaps she had sensed in that Bush-poisoned era that I was a card carrying American, and felt the Gallic need to comment.

Perhaps she had been experiencing a generally bad day, although it was only about 11:00, and the French don’t get out much before 10:00, except all the entrepreneurs who hit the streets before daylight, opening their shops and stalls and stores.

Perhaps she was an entrepreneur, and had heard that she had been cast into non-existence by Bush’s remark that the French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur.

In that event - if she had thought that I was an American - that might have been the reason for the bumping. No one likes to be characterized as non-existent, especially by an idiot.

I had taken the more optimistic view that I was an old man and just an obstacle in her way, not an additional contributor to her dissatisfaction with the state of the day.

Suddenly that had changed.

With the need to fill out that form in French in France I had achieved in one fel swoop the capability of contributing massively and directly to her unrest.

I would have had trouble completing that form in English in America.

My form filling out would also probably shatter what had been, up to that point in time, the apparent placidity of the other members of the queue. Or so I feared.

I was really rattled.

But I got through the process, and the kind hearted clerk said “pas problem” about the fact that I had put my address in the “pronom” slot and both my first and last names in the “nom” slot and then to fix those problems had put my “pronom” in the address slot, had scratched out my “pronom” from the address slot next to my “nom” and solved the whole disarray with arrows pointing hither and yon, indicating what the actual locations of the various form components should be.

I thought that my printing had been quite good given the circumstances.

And I got my Champion card, which included three little key chain attachable versions, and I got 1.5 Euros off at the register.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Rudimentary Radio Tales

This is another excerpt from Screen Saver.  The wires again lead inevitably to a blinding flash.

“Wires coming out the back of radios” was a recurring theme of my early memories. Usually they also involved some sort of catastrophe.

There was the transistor radio I built. I had experienced, starting not long after the atomic attack several entertaining, educational and even successful encounters with various versions of the famous old time crystal set. I had also experienced one highly unsuccessful, and expensive, attempt to follow the directions in some “Popular, Something or Other” magazine for building a one transistor radio.

One of the components from the failed one transistor radio project took me to the pinnacle of crystal set building. That component was an extremely low voltage variable capacitor. If you had ever ripped open an old time radio, or had one smashed to the floor before your very eyes, you would have recalled seeing a thing that looked like a pair of interleaving three quarter (one quarter was missing) metal circles. Coming out of the center of the circles would have been a shaft and prior to ripping open or decomposing the radio you would have found a knob on that shaft on the front panel of the radio. This was the tuning device.

The one from my failed one transistor radio had looked exactly like the one described, including a little shaft for a knob. But it wasn’t possible to see the circles of interleaving plates; they were beautifully enclosed in a case of thin white plastic. And rather than being the size of a carton of butter it had been more the size of four quarters piled on top of one another. Of course the case was square. Once the one transistor project had been declared a complete failure I had disposed of most of the components, but I hadn’t been able to bear to dispose of that beautiful little variable capacitor, although I had no earthly use for it.

So I continued working with my crystal sets. The crystal set was how I became a rock and roll fan. On my set I was able to get several stations. This was before cheap or even affordable transistor radios, so kids didn’t usually have real radios. My crystal set had filled that void.

The important station I that could get was KPOJ. Starting at 8 or 9 in the evening a local disk jockey named Dick Novak opened “The Rhythm Room” for all of us, mostly kids out there listening. The broadcast was a remote from Amato’s Supper Club, a Portland attempt at a nightclub. He played songs, and people who were at Amato’s for dinner, drinks and the show came to talk to him and the whole thing was magical; or so it had seemed to me. So the crystal set had become my closest friend. I was still in transition to humanity.

Friend though it might have been, the crystal set had disadvantages: weak signal exacerbated by inexact tuning. The tuning mechanism on a crystal set was a tuning coil. To make a tuning coil you saved an empty toilet paper core and shellacked it several times to give it durability and rigidity. That shellacked tube also provided an ideal non-electronic base for the rest of the device, which was very thin bare copper wire. The wire was wound in neat sequential, non overlapping turns, and then shellacked and let dry. Then a second coat was applied and let dry and then a track was carefully sanded in the shellacked wire to bare copper across the length of the tube. It was this bare copper track that, when engaged by a rotating metal arm that accomplished tuning on a crystal set. The only problem was that the rotating arm was a broad contact point to the tuning coil’s thin copper wire. That fact didn’t matter a whole lot because the crystal providing the signal was a pretty weak and inexact input source. But one could dream of improvement. And there had been some improvements. I had read somewhere that soldering a wire to the underside of the tuning arm would improve selectivity; and it did. But it still was far from ideal. One could still dream.

In the back of my mind had been for some time the question: “what if I could use the low voltage variable capacitor? Without a battery would the device even work?” There wasn’t anything on a crystal set that could use a battery. Whatever current that existed was the signal from the crystal. “Was whatever current that came off the crystal sufficient to drive the variable capacitor?” I had continued to ponder.

I had disposed of “most” of the parts for the failed transistor project. In addition to the variable capacitor I had also saved the germanium diode. The crystal on a classical crystal set was called a cat’s whisker. A cat’s whisker had two components that were joined on a substrate with connectors so the device could be put into the crystal set’s circuit. One component was a chunk of germanium which senses radio waves. That chunk of germanium was imbedded in a round slug of lead, or solder. The other component was a little arm with a knob on one end and a coil of spring wire with an extending snout – the cat’s whisker. This arm was mounted in a vertical stanchion, which was mounted on the substrate. This arrangement allowed for the variable positioning, rotating right and left and up and down with the “whisker” searching for a sensitive spot in the crystal. It was pretty sophisticated mechanically, but not much from an electronic viewpoint.

I had an intellectual grasp of the merits of the germanium diode over the cat’s whisker. The diode consisted of highly refined germanium enclosed in a little tube sealed and reinforced at either end by a metal seal and with an access wire coming out of each end. When the thing was hooked into the device it was intended for it provided a maximum, constant, non-variable signal. It was the tuner’s job to sort that signal out. Even though I knew those advantages it had never occurred to me to substitute the diode for the cat’s whisker.

Until one day it did occur to me. I removed the cat’s whisker and replaced it with the diode. And it worked. So now I had a great source of signal, with really sloppy tuning. It was obviously the time to see if the low volt variable capacitor would work. Now the problem arose, how do I attach it – not physically, but logically? For some reason I felt I needed to retain the tuning coil, but add the variable capacitor; but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I decided that putting the capacitor in series with the coil made sense. So I did that, shoved the capacitor in one end of the tube, which made for a perfectly snug mount for the capacitor, and – it worked. It was unbelievable. I could rough tune with the coil and then get several stations from that position with the capacitor. I felt as if I had invented radio.

Then I found in some magazine that I read – probably Boys Life – that I could buy a “kit” for a one transistor radio. It looked to have significant advantages over my previous attempt: the price was way less, all components were included, it was small, to be placed after being assembled on a small substrate into a neat little pillbox of clear plastic that snapped positively closed; and there was a minimum of soldering. The previous project had failed in part due to my lack of soldering skills. I had cooked my nine-dollar transistor. Nine dollars had been a lot of money to try to replace in those days, especially for a kid.

So I sent for the kit. And it went together beautifully. And it worked like a real radio, even better than my souped up crystal set. But I was never one to be satisfied with the status quo. So I was constantly gilding the lily. The radio worked with an antenna only; it didn’t need a ground. A ground is an iron rod pounded into the ground. An even better ground is a cold water pipe. My crystal set had always used a ground, which was always a hassle, so no ground was a good thing. All I needed to work on improving was the antenna. Was there any way to improve the signal being presented to the diode?

I had at this time an electric alarm clock that had been reduced to bare guts, so many times had it been knocked on the floor when attempting to wake me. It still worked fine, though, and I didn’t care that it was a clock face mounted in the frontal remains of what had previously been a case, with most of its workings exposed. Those workings included the two screws that attached the dual strands of electrical cord to the clock. That dual bolt exposure proved to be serendipitous. Somehow, I had discovered that bringing the antenna in proximity to those electric terminals improved the antenna unbelievably. I found that attaching the antenna to one of the terminals with an alligator clip was even better, and certainly more permanent. So I lived happily with my enhanced antenna for some time. But I had a question in the back of my mind. Would a ground even improve things more? There was a perfectly serviceable cold water pipe in the yard right outside my window.

So I wrapped some copper wire tightly around the water pipe, having dropped it down from my window and went back to my room and attached the ground to the radio. As with the encounter with the cat’s cradle, the immediate results of this action contributed some of my clearest and most intense of memories: “how could I be so stupid?”

The room lit up with a flash. It filled with a melted plastic smell. Tendrils of smoke floated ceiling-ward from the two electrical terminals on the clock whose hands were frozen in time and space at 5:33. The little pool of melted plastic next to it had only a few seconds before been my one transistor radio. I always had a special place in my heart for that little radio.