Strange Things – 1

Every once in a while I encounter something strange and can’t identify it or its purpose – despite a bit of online investigation.

Here’s a good example. I took this snap just outside of the medieval walled village of Aigues-Mortes in the Camargue region of southern France:

No writing on it. Facing away from the parked cars – or else I’d naively think it is some type of electric charging station. The oval bit in the middle looks to be a cover with a hinge, but there is no obvious way to open it. Even Google Images could not help me out.

Tasks I hate to do

A guest blog, by Arlene Ritley

Everyone has something they hate to do around the house.  So those particular tasks are often put off until the need arises, or the funds are available to hire someone to do them.

My husband would rather have a root canal then do the dusting.  I, on the other hand like to dust.  And if I may say so, I do a great job with a dust cloth and a can or bottle of spray wax.  Proper way to dust is the one chore in my family that has been handed down from one generation to the next.

But to get back to the topic “tasks I hate to do”.  I have two tasks I absolutely hate to do and that is

  • Clean the oven
  • Clean the refrigerator

AH you say.  Only two tasks you hate to do.  Yes only two as I have, over the years, delegated more of these “hate to do” tasks to others in my family.

Cleaning the oven

Cleaning the oven is easy to do now if you own a self cleaning oven.

Not so easy to do if you do not have a self cleaning oven.  What I did years ago when stoves had to be cleaned by hand, was wipe up spills with a damp paper towel.  Then when my oven could no longer pass a sanitation inspection, for example my mother or mother-in-law were coming for an extended visit; I had no choice but to


I actually did this twice during my early years.

Cleaning the refrigerator

Cleaning the refrigerator is a little more complicated and one I absolutely hate to do.

Take all the food out a shelf at a time.  Wash – Dry – Put the food back where it was, throwing out expired and unused bottles and jars.  Shelf, by shelf, by shelf.  That’s only the refrigerator.  You can’t forget the freezer.  But I found a way to get the task done.


One that lasted for a day and a half.  All the food went bad and had to be removed.  While my husband bagged up the food I cleaned and sanitized the entire refrigerator, in and out.  When I was finished my refrigerator sparkled like a diamond.  Power outages happen more frequently now with Global Warming.  When and if this happens again, you’ll know where I am and what I’m doing.

The moral of this story is . . .

     . . . delegate tasks you hate to do to someone else, then

     . . . find a creative and out of the box way to do the few tasks you hate.


This guest blog was submitted by Arlene Ritley, an editor with the Island Moon Newspaper – one of South Texas’s largest community newspapers.

Stay in your vehicle in Texas

I can’t think of any other state than Texas that offers so many commercial opportunities via the drive-thru channel.

Here is a drive thru bank. You stay in your car, and real people (called bank tellers) pass money to you via pneumatic tubes:

America is highly segregated into areas that reflect the financial class of the residents. So here is a similar shot at a much fancier bank in a much more affluent neighborhood:

Need to hand in your cowboy boots for a good cleaning or a bit of repair, handy if you can stay in your three-axel, 6 wheel, 300 HP pickup truck to do it:

And last but not least, it does make a lot of sense that – particularly if you are sick – you stay in your automobile while you get your medication from the pharmacy:

Sadly, I don‘t have a snap to show, but some states have quite impressive drive thru liquor and beer stores. In Pennsylvania it was illegal to buy individual cans of beer – a case or 24 cans or bottles was the minimum size you could buy – so you‘d drive your car into what looked like a garage, where someone would load the beer into your car. Never seen one of these in Texas, however.

World’s most stupidest train

Sometimes, I see things that are dumb.

Occasionally, I see things that are really, really dumb.

But every once in a very rare while, I see something that is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid that I really makes me question how something so ludicrous could even be thought of by mankind, much less implemented!

And here is one of those things, a little train that runs back and forth in Terminal A of the Detroit International Airport.

Here is what it looks like from the outside:

And, not being able to resist trying out something so incredibly stupid, here is what it looks like from the inside:

Now here comes what the famous magicians Penn and Teller call The Reveal, when I tell you why this is so stupid.

Many large airports have little automated trains – actually, one of the first was probably the train at the Dallas Fort-Worth airport, which I remember from back when I was a little kid.  Airports are huge but with well defined stopping places, so a train is an ideal way to get around.

But in this case, the train only plies Terminal A, from Gate 1 to Gate 70.  That is not a big distance to walk – with the rolling  floors, I think I required no more than about 7 minutes to walk / coast the distance.  But worse that than, this train has only three stops: at Gate 1, at Gate 35, and Gate 70. Plus the train is elevated.

So that means for anyone wanting to shave off a little time from their gate-to-gate journey . . . no way they can do this!  They have to schlep their luggage up to the platform, wait 5 minutes for the train, then take it to somewhere where, unless you are lucky, walking will be required anyway.

I could think of no usecase in which this train would save anyone any real time – and in fact, most of the people riding it seemed to be like me: curious folks with a four-hour layover and plenty of time to kill doing stupid things. And I could think of no usecase in which this train would benefit the mobility limited.

My best guess: this was a project intended to channel public money to the right private parties, such as the company the makes the train.

Newest addition

The little banjo below on the left is my newest acquisition!

My Deering Calico (on the right) is a professional level instrument, but it‘s loud and weighs in at around 5 kg.  In fact, most non-experts are always surprised at the weight, but a banjo like this sports a so-called tone ring – a huge doughnut piece of bell metal that weighs several kgs and that gives the banjo its unique banjo twang.

My new Deering Artisan (on the left) lacks the tone ring and a few other components, so it weighs in at just less than 1 kg.

The main reason for the acquisition is two-fold: For a long time I have wanted a little travel banjo that I could take with me more easily. And this style of banjo is used for a very unique – but extremely challenging – style of banjo music known as clawhammer or frailing, and I thought it was finally time for me to learn!

One of my favorite projects – 3

Continuing the series, as part of a large IT transformation that I helped drive, it was necessary for us to hire 20+ talented IT professionals. And add to that around 30 mostly Indian colleagues that were to join us to run the Transition and Transformation (T&T) program. And add to that at least two other large IT teams we wanAnd because we had so many people, it was necessary for us to locate and rent a building dedicated to IT. So I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take off my IT transformation hat and put on my facilities management hat.

This blog series recollects a bit of the journey before too much time passes and I forget some of the more interesting details.

Ongoing third parties

I’ve worn a few different hats in my life: cook in a restaurant, forklift truck driver, landscape gardener, and professional housepainter to name just a few of the most important ones. So it is not only fun but a privilege when life gives me the chance to establish working relationships with people in varied trades.

One of the most fun people I dealt with was the head of the cleaning service company we contracted. I won’t mention her name here, but anyway she is retired. She was around six-foot five feet tall, and when she first shook my hand she literally crushed it (no kidding, I could not play the banjo that day!). She was from Stuttgart – and I lived many years in Stuttgart – and if you know anything about the passions of the people Schwabia  – and I am saying this because they are great people – then you know that quite probably cleaning is the only topic more important on their scale of life than finance or even religion!

I learned a few things about cleaning.

One thing I learned, the cleaning contract is built around a very specific checklist or work to be done (wipe desk tops with damp cloth, clean outside of refrigerator, complete vacuum of carpet, spot vacuum of carpet for visible dirt, etc.) and how often each step is to be done (daily, weekly, monthly, on demand) and when (e.g. after working hours).

I also learned that after the contract was signed, at least in my case, the cleaning company assigned a dedicated resource to handle our cleaning needs. I hardly ever saw her, because she I don’t think she came to building until around midnight. And I also learned that she took a lot of pride in her work and very often cleaned up even when it was not clearly written in the contract.

I also learned that we had an obligation to provide a rather large room to store the cleaning materials (I never consider this when I did my original planning!). Think about it: vacuum and mop. But you’ll need a huge shelf space for the cleaning products and chemicals, as well as the consumables. Believe me, there are many, many more consumables than you might first think about!

And finally, the little stuff. Like most people, I’ve used toilets all my life, maybe not always exclusively, but usually when I had the chance and the need!  Also living in Asia I became rather proficient at Asian style squat toilets.

But in addition to my role to help drive the IT Transformation, I was as a facilities manager now, the and toilets were my responsibility, and this means all of them, both men’s and women’s (and the shower).

Now here are a few things you might not think about in this snap:

Think a little bit about the consumables. The little white dispenser is for alcohol – this needs to be discussed with the cleaning company, and you’ll need a part in your contract about how often its checked. And the other consumables – and there are more of them than you think: sanitary products, bags, toilet paper, soap, paper for drying your hands, bags to line the towel basket, bags to line the waste basket – and a few more I’ll let you figure out yourself!

And although it’s not shown here, the restrooms contained a spray bottle of a scented fragrance that periodically (few times a day) shot a burst of fresh scent into the room: which scent would you like? How often should it be checked? How often should it spray? Who checks that it sprays and who replaces the little battery when it‘s needed?

These were just a few of the challenges you face when you are a facilities manager!  It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but as time goes on you start to take these things in your stride!


Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 4

Dear Mr. Tradecraft, So how did you meet Ken? – Spy Plying Outstanding Operator Knowledge



Communist China in the 1990’s. I was doing some TA work for a Middle Eastern client – Threat Assessment, arrive early, check out the opposition. Not ten minutes out of the hotel I spotted a 6-man surveillance team! Now here’s where you fall back on principles: it’s never a Red Zone until you confirm it’s a Red Zone. So after a few harrowing, blood-curdling bone-chilling minutes I realized there was indeed a team, but following a tall, bald American, not me. So I decided to hang back and watch the fun. Nobody, not even me, can evade a properly trained team that size.

But this dumb American! For the first hour he was clearly unaware of his situation. Don’t know what tipped him off – but after an hour he picked up the closest two. And then he did something amazing: he nonchalantly executed evasive pattern after evasive pattern (I counted four!), identifying each member of the team, and in less than 30 minutes he was absolutely, positively clear.

Here’s the thing: there was something about his body language that told me he was no operator. Followed up on him (had to, really, what he pulled off was a once-in-a-lifetime event) and learned he was a nuclear physicist – and not an operator, no training at all. That explained the team: nuclear physicists in China don’t go anywhere without surveillance. I told him – or better put, I counseled him months later, in a different Asian country, over steaming bowls of Bi Luo Chun tea – he has that raw talent that would easily take him to the upper echelons of our trade, if he ever so chose. More than sad – I would have been keen to have an apprentice of his natural caliber. But we keep in touch, and through his blog I get pro bono way to give back to an honorable trade.

Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.


Bubble architecture – 6

The French have finally done it better!

Continuing the series, this is the bubble enclosed railway station of King’s Cross in London,

As you can see from my blog post here, this attempt at bubble architecture falls considerable short of what the French were able to achieve in Strasbourg, a masterpiece.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as global warming causes temperatures to rise, we’ll see more and more examples of this, just like frogs boiling to death in water that is very gradually heated.

Modified Silvester Method

This is something you don’t see everyday!

Well, in fact, a sign like this giving basic instructions in CPR is probably something you do see everyday, such as this sign I saw in a train station in France:

But what you don’t see everyday is the part of the sign giving instructions in the use of the Modified Silvester Method:

I’d never heard about this before – so I looked it up. It is not a version of CPR (which affects the movement of blood) but rather artificial respiration (getting the lungs to inflate and deflate).  I am not sure if this method is actually taught or encouraged anymore, and the date on the sign points to its age:


The landscape of milk

I’m currently in a project where I am designing and documenting various IT architectures and landscapes: organizational, applications, infrastructure.

So while in this very “IT landscape frame of mind” I stumbled across this very interesting diagram on Wikipedia,

I think it’s just brilliant!  I’ve always been interested in the vast number of milk products – even more so after living in Eastern Europe and Western Europe and seeing products (such as quark and saline cheese) that are not available in the U.S.

And it is wonderful that someone could classify all the milk products in this way, to create a very colorful and easy-to-understand visual taxonomy.

Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 3

Dear Mr. Tradecraft,

I landed an upcoming assignment beginning 6 weeks from today, but for reasons I can‘t mention, I‘ll need to disguise myself. Any advice? – Disguised Operator Needs Good Lessons from Experts.


Dear DONGLE, Cancel the contract. I won‘t operate with a different persona without a minimum 4 months solid prep time, 24×7.  The hair, the clothes, the look, the speech – that‘s the easy bit. But the walk is the key. We all have our own natural walk, and learning to walk differently – to carry yourself differently – that‘s the hard bit. You’ll need a minimum of 4 months living the persona full time to develop the muscle memory, and to keep it throughout any stress situation.

Dear Mr. Tradecraft,

Ken has mentioned in his blog all the different areas you’ve worked in. What is the hardest and most challenging?– Secret Person Yearning

Dear SPY, The clandestine world has many specialties and sub-disciplines, but one stands far, far apart from the others: Cut-Out: getting a physical “thing” from Place A to Place B with absolutely, positively no trace-ability. Oh, I’ve dabbled in this from time to time, and I rarely turn down a straightforward contract. But for the big stuff – the political dossiers, the nuclear plans, the CD of videos showing CIA torture scenes – nothing less than a purebred, died-in-the-wool CU master will do. A top earner in this discipline easily earns fifty times what I bring down. But it takes decades of hard work and experience to get to this level. Today, there are only three well-known international, freelancing CU masters at this level. Four, if you count one in the Mossad.

Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.


Is the slashed zero now dead?

Things change, and in the field of Information Science they change faster than most.  A delightful story of change is provided on the homepage of perhaps the world’s most famous computer scientist, Donald Knuth:

A note on email versus e-mail

Newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used. For example, people used to write “non-zero” and “soft-ware” instead of “nonzero” and “software”; the same trend has occurred for hundreds of other words. Thus it’s high time for everybody to stop using the archaic spelling “e-mail”. Think of how many keystrokes you will save in your lifetime if you stop now! The form “email” has been well established in England for several years, so I am amazed to see Americans being overly conservative in this regard. (Of course, “email” has been a familiar word in France, Germany, and the Netherlands much longer than in England — but for an entirely different reason.)

I’d like to single out something similar, probably only known to those of us (like me!) whose history of Information Technology and computers pre-dated with the development of computer monitors: the first application I used was on a teletype machine at a laboratory at U.C. Berkeley.

Slashed O

When programmers started programming in the days even before punched cards, zero’s and one’s were so important  – and in those days, numbers were far more important and frequently used than letters. Therefore, programmers and also typesetters most frequently wrote “slashed o” instead of the letter O, in order to distinguish the uncommonly used letter from the very commonly used number.

If you look on Google you can find many examples of this, usually images of very old computer manuals, like this:


Slashed Zero

At some point after the introduction of high level computer languages, the letter O became more important than the number zero, so programmers use “slashed 0” instead of the number zero, in order to distinguish the uncommonly used number from the very commonly used letter.

Here is a good example of what that looks like:


0 = O: Leave it to the fonts, high resolution displays, and good eyes

Today, it seems rare to see the slashed zero anymore. The computer fonts used in many editors make it very difficult to distinguish between “oh” and “zero” – usually relying on highlighting the entire word or variable when the programmers application developers get it wrong.

I don’t know when the slashed zero fell out of use, but it would be nice if some language scholars have studied and document this before it disappears from human memory.

FYI, most programmers application developers I know not only do not use this convention, but also have never heard of it – so it goes to show you how quickly things change and the past is forgotten!



How does anything start?

A guest blog, by Paul Cottingham

“Write me a guest blog,” Ken said. “Me?” I said. “Yes,” Ken said. “OK,” I said. What a fool, I think to myself, not Ken, ME! I agree to something I have not done in years – WRITE! Well, strictly not true, I write most weekends just not in this fashion but I will explain this one day. I am 51-year-old father of two, married to Carole for 25 years, I work in IT and I live in a small city in Yorkshire, England called York and from the age of 14 I wanted to be a rock star, well, sort of. I suppose what I want in life is the same as most others: I want to be happy in what I do and hopefully make other people happy also and if I can use a modicum of my talents to make people happy then it’s job done.

Let me explain. Back in 1979 I was friendly with two local kids and we discovered we liked the same music. We had moved into post-punk era of Joy Division, Durutti Column, Marine Girls and – some may disagree as they were in the punk era but for me as they extended life beyond punk – The Clash. Kicking around the neighbourhood one long summer day in the school holidays, Iain the elder of the trio suggested we should form a band. No hesitation from Pete and myself – we both spluttered out, brilliant! We had no clue how to play, no clue what instruments we would play, no clue how we would perform this task of forming a band. We just knew this was what we should do. Iain had a Clash poster above his bed and they were photographed for their first album with the three of them stood in an alley looking cool into the camera. Sold! That’s us, we are cool, we can be in a band, we can do it! Now all we had to do was go figure out how we could rule the world with our smouldering coolness and amazing music.

Hold on though, we looked at each other and paused. It was a little bit like that moment in The Graduate and a part of a scene that folks often do not notice right at the end of the movie, when Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman and Elaine, played by Katharine Ross, leap on to the bus and all the passengers look back at the couple whom have just run from the wedding in an act of spontaneous euphoric love. They too stop and look at each other, pretty much like we were right now, and realise the gravity of their actions, what have we done? Well, maybe not quite as dramatic and romantic as that but nonetheless to a 14-year-old kid whose only goal in life was to look cool and play a little football or soccer as our brothers from across the pond would say and have Sandra Pearson as my girlfriend this was a big deal and we are not backing down now.

It is 1979, Summer, three bored kids with 5 weeks of school holidays ahead of them, on the cusp of being the best band in the world, with no instruments, no talent (that we know of), no record deal but heaps of enthusiasm and smouldering coolness. What could possibly go wrong?

. . . to be continued.

Paul Cottingham is one of those amazing senior IT leaders you run into all too infrequently: he has an innate sense for true leadership, and out of an interest in the well-being of his team he won’t stop until he has everyone fully motivated and pulling together. Paul is an accomplished musician who’s original compositions and multi-instrument production work is regularly aired on international radio programs such as the BBC. You can find links to his music here: (add link).


Cold fusion: A LESSON from Kelvin Lynn, and a STORY

Recently, my friend and mentor Kelvin Lynn for over 30 years passed away. In so many professional and personal ways I would not be who I am today without the strong positive influence of Kelvin. He mainly taught me it’s never about the subject or how you approach it, whatever that subject might be – it’s about the people you encounter on your journey and how you treat them. Recently, one of his other mentees Marc Weber – now a world renowned  physics professor in Washington – recounted some early stories of our first years with Kelvin. What follows below is one of those stories.

In 1989 I was a young 24-year-old aspiring physicist who wanted to change his specialty, and Kelvin spared no efforts to help me out, to help me find a new grad school, and invited me to Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, in New York, to work for him as a lab technician until things got settled. The first task he assigned to me: help him research „cold fusion,“ a phenomenon recently reported by two chemists in Utah, in which they claimed nuclear fusion (like in the sun) could be created with a little battery and an electrochemical cell.  I always guessed it was this combination of the Utah connection together with the promise of a Nobel prize that drove Kelvin‘s special passion to tackle this topic. But I don‘t think Kelvin worked on anything without passion – and for a brief while, this was at the top of his passion list.

First, an important lesson he taught me in the beginning. Like 99.9% of the physics community, I believed cold fusion was pseudo-science: a made-up lie or an egregious goof, not worth anyone‘s time to study further. Kelvin corrected me at once, and in a stern way to let me know how serious this was: not only did he say public opinion must not influence us in any way, but he told me our job as serious experimental scientists was exactly to investigate phenomena and, if they did not exist, absolutely prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Reproducibility was crucial in the process.

Those were two major lessons I‘ve carried with me ever since.

But then, a funny story for anyone who knew how fast Kelvin could think and react. As part of our experiment we built a huge water bath the size of a large bathtub, and we filled it with electrochemical cells like they use for electric plating of metals. This was supposedly how cold fusion could be triggered, with a battery, inside of these cells. All the electrical power meant that our bathtub full of water was at a very warm and comfortable 70 – 80 degrees F, just like an aquarium. So as a creative-but-still-quite-juvenile 24-year-old I thought: wouldn‘t it be cool to add a few goldfish?  They would not disturb our experiment in any way, but our laboratory would be nicer with some pretty fish swimming around in the bathtub.

So I went to the pet store together with another student, Peter Dull, to buy a few goldfish. (Peter also thought it would be a fun idea.)

Anyway, a day later and before Kelvin could find out about the fish, the Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory decided to personally visit our laboratory and experiment together with a group of BNL‘s highest ranked Senior Scientists. This was the first time Kelvin learned about or saw the fish.  The Director was shocked to see goldfish in a physics laboratory – as I recall, the Director screamed more than a few obscenities! The other Senior Scientists were similarly shocked. But Kelvin did not miss a beat! In a very calm voice he corrected the Director: cold fusion had the potential to be so dangerous to human life that we felt obligated to add the goldfish, to act as our canaries-in-the-mine in case any hazardous radiation was released!  Of course, neutrons were expected as a key signature from cold fusion (just like regular fusion).

Under pressure, Kelvin could sell anything, to anyone, at any time. So it was no surprise the Director and the Senior Scientists believed this – well, mostly –  and the talk quickly changed to more serious subjects.

By the way, Peter Dull was one of many, many of Kelvin‘s students went on to have a stunning international career. Now a medical doctor, Peter worked for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and was in charge of managing the SARS virus outbreak some years ago. And today Peter works directly for Bill Gates, in charge of all immunization research for the Gates Foundation. I never believed Kelvin picked superstars for his team – I am living proof of that. Rather, a few years working closely with Kelvin could turn some people like Peter and many, many others into superstars.

Kelvin Lynn paid forward the gift from one of his early teachers who noticed the spark of scientific curiosity in a kid running wild in the hills of South Dakota.

Epilogue: The goldfish became even more famous. Turning belly-up due to cold fusion would show their lighter color side. So a simple photo-detector would suffice rather than expensive neutron detectors. Well, as Nature will have it, the fish perished rapidly. It turns out, however, they did not succumb to neutron radiation but got entangled in the propeller of the water circulation system to keep the tank temperature homogeneous.



Did I accidentally discover a new Einstein?

I am not the world’s biggest fan of museums, but I had a frightening, emotional reaction at the Einstein Museum in Bern, Museum, when I looked at this grammar school photo of Einstein’s class:

My reaction was frightening and emotional, because all of the dozens of schoolchildren at staring emotionless and straight faced at the camera, with only one notable exception: the young Einstein is smiling:

Interestingly, I’ve noticed this one time before. At a large Indian wedding a group of small children asked me to take their picture with my digital camera. After reviewing the picture some years later, I realized that only one of the children was smiling:

Could it be my path crossed with the next Albert Einstein?

Sighting of the top secret AURORA spy plane over Switzerland!

OK, I don’t know if it is or if it isn’t, but here’s a snap I took with my mobile phone in Bern, pointed east towards Geneva and France:

What you can see in the center are tiny bits of contrails – in fact, there were many more of them but they started to disappear by the time I could get out my mobile phone and take the snap.

These “doughnuts on a rope” are the tell-tale signature of something called a scramjet engine.  And the only suspected vehicle thought to sport a scramjet engine is the top secret Aurora hypersonic spy plane.  Did I find one in the skies over Switzerland?

Interestingly, although the existance of the Aurora hypersonic spy plane has never been confirmed by the U.S. government, in fact scramjet engines are very well known. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a top program for aviation engineering, and a good friend of mine told me a story about them testing a scramjet engine in a large hangar – in which a dog was accidentally locked into the hangar. After the test they discovered the dog, dead – but the amazing part is that all his bones were liquified by the intense sonic pressure waves of the scramjet engine.

The beans of Umberto Eco

This is Umberto Eco,

But these were not his beans:

Umberto Eco, who recently died in 2016, was well-known to many people as the author of some truly mind blowing books, such as Foucault’s Pendulum and the Name of the Rose (which became a movie starring Sean Connery).

Not being his beans, this was also not his bean and sausage soup,

That was my bean and sausage soup, and it turned out rather delicious.

But Umberto said a lot of very interesting things in an essay he wrote about beans, in which he argued that these little easy-to-store, easy-to-grow, easy-to-transport bundles of life saving energy had a revolutionary effect on Europe in the Middle Ages:

So when, in the 10th century, the cultivation of legumes began to spread, it had a profound effect on Europe. Working people were able to eat more protein; as a result, they became more robust, lived longer, created more children and repopulated a continent.

We believe that the inventions and the discoveries that have changed our lives depend on complex machines. But the fact is, we are still here — I mean we Europeans, but also those descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Spanish conquistadors — because of beans. Without beans, the European population would not have doubled within a few centuries, today we would not number in the hundreds of millions and some of us, including even readers of this article, would not exist. Some philosophers say that this would be better, but I am not sure everyone agrees.

Perpetual pursuit of the perfect purse

A guest blog, by Arlene Ritley

Hello, my name is Arlene.  And yes I am addicted to buying new purses and handbags.

I currently have, at last count, at least fifteen handbags.  Some are very expensive and come with their own dust bag.  Others are fine leather ones I purchased at discount, paying very little considering the quality of the leather and trim.  Some are made of fabric not to be used when we have inclement weather.

Some people make fun of me – “What! Another purse?”  I simply laugh it off and say I really needed a new one.  I often give them as gifts for birthdays or Christmas.  I fool myself into thinking all my women friends are just waiting for a new handbag.

I have given much thought as to when this obsession had started.  I have come to the conclusion that it started when I was about seven or eight years old making my First Holy Communion.  My mom and I went shopping to buy a communion dress and veil.  But along with the ensemble there was a very small white purse with a gold religious emblem sewn on the front with a prayer book inside.  How could you not feel special carrying this purse?

But like all items people obsess over, the euphoric feeling doesn’t last long.  And before you know it you will find me in the handbag section of the department store.

BUT – this all changed.  Finally, finally I found the one purse that fulfills my every requirement.  It is large but not too large.  It has an opening on the outside for a cell phone plus a charger.  Once I open the zipper of the main compartment I find six compartments to hold everything I need.  I’ll never have to buy another purse again!

(Who am I kidding?  Just thinking about not purchasing another purse makes my hands shake; I feel dizzy, nauseated and agitated.  Am I addicted – you bet your bottom dollar I am.)


This guest blog was submitted by Arlene Ritley, an editor with the Island Moon Newspaper – one of South Texas’s largest community newspapers.


Urban Mysteries – 1

There are a number of urban mysteries for me.

One mystery is why they paint tall structures with red and white.

This is a snap I took of a transmission tower in Alsace in France:

And this is a snap I took of a nuclear cooling tower in New York:

The mystery is why different countries use exactly the same approach?  Is this an international ISO standard?

(By the way, that big dome in the photo above is the enclosure to the nuclear reactor. I was only around 20 years old at the time, but I had a security clearance to work on the so-called operations deck from which they directly controlled the reactor.  I was quite probably the youngest person in America to have this clearance. It was quite cool because there was a retina scanner to get in, and once you entered you walked into a metal cage. Once in the cage, one guard pointed a gun at you while the other checked your badge.  This was the 1980’s, the Cold War was in full swing, and they didn’t take any chances.)