Reflections on a Train Trip

[This was the very first post on Nebraska Energy Observer, and I doubt many have seen it. So I thought for the third anniversary of the blog, which is today, I would bring it back. I hope you enjoy it, because I still think it speaks to some important things.]

The United States Steel Company paid $385,000 toward the construction of this $1million Gothic beauty in Gary, Indiana, in the 1920s, but now the church lies in decay

The United States Steel Company paid $385,000 toward the construction of this $1million Gothic beauty in Gary, Indiana, in the 1920s, but now the church lies in decay

I recently had an opportunity to travel by train back to Nebraska from Philadelphia. As most of you who have ever traveled by train know, it gives you a fair amount of time to think about whatever crosses your mind. For some reason this trip (which I actually take roughly every year) caused me to reflect on the industrial powerhouse that was America. If you travel by train, you see a lot of industrial areas new and old.  What struck me this time was coming through Pittsburgh, northern Ohio and northwest Indiana was remembering these areas when I was a kid back in the 60’s, when it was very common still to see the black smoke and flames shoot into the air at the steel mills. These were the mills that industrialized America and made the steel that built the machines that won two World Wars and conquered a continent and fed the world.

It is commonly said that steel built the railroad industry and the railroads built the steel industry and it’s true; if one includes coal in the steel industry. What awesome plants they were, for instance, the main street of Gary, Indiana (itself named for a steel executive) ends at the main gate of US Steel Gary Works. And remember a basic element of US Steel; Carnegie Steel produced more steel than Great Britain in the 1890’s. Pittsburgh was much the same, only possibly more so. Here was the steel produced that made the railroads, which then made the largest common market in the world, and the steel for the agricultural equipment that still feeds the world, and the steel for the American automobiles and the weapons and transportation of the American military that won two World Wars  and the Cold War. Just a few weeks ago, USS (X) was dropped from the Standard and Poor’s 500 because it was no longer valuable enough.

On this trip you pass by the old Pullman Plant in Michigan City, Indiana that built railcars, mostly freight cars in this plant (the passenger cars came out of the plant in Pullman, Illinois). Now it is an outlet mall, and American passenger trains have Canadian built cars. You also pass the ruins of the Studebaker plant in South Bend as well as the old Bendix plant (this one is still operating, now owned by Robert Bosch AG).

Most of the plants are still there, many in ruins, some still operating, that gave this region the nickname of the Rust Belt. There are a lot of reasons why it is now the rust belt; without going into those reasons, it is a melancholy sight for a person that remembers these areas in full operation to see it half-shut down and falling into ruin. This may truly symbolize the greatness of America in the future, the country that provided a far better living to the average man than anybody had ever dreamed possible; and provided much of it to the entire world as well.

Has that America gone forever? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I think the individual drive to succeed still exists. The one that caused Henry Ford to remember the hard life on a 19th Century farm and create the Model T to make the farmer’s life easier, the Cyrus McCormick that made the reaper, the John Deere and Oliver that made plows so much better than had ever been dreamed of, the Andrew Carnegie that started as telegrapher on the Pennsylvania Railroad and built the largest steel company in the world (and then built Libraries all over the country, to further help the common man) or for that matter Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They all made everyone’s life easier and more fulfilling. They also got very, very rich in a society that rewarded the man who would take a planned risk with a product that worked.

Where is that flamboyant public endeavor now? I think it’s still there, but now instead of trying to emulate the successful man (or woman) we castigate them for making money. Note that I said making money, for that is what they do. Without them, going back to Paul Revere (yes, the famed horseman) who founded the Revere Copper Works to provide the copper bottom for the USS Constitution and Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin (and the interchangeable parts in the Springfield 1793 musket) we would still be a strip of dirt along the Atlantic seaboard doing little more than subsistence farming, as a bunch of upstart rebels to the rightful King.

Am I the only one able to remember the glory of the early space program, I doubt it. Recently, I saw a clip of Neal Armstrong speaking at the dedication of Purdue’s new Engineering Administration building (Armstrong Hall, of course). After all, it couldn’t be Aeronautical Engineering (That’s in Grissom Hall). (There is also a dorm called Earhart Hall as Amelia Earhart was on the faculty and Purdue provided her Lockheed Electra.) Purdue isn’t called the ‘Cradle of Astronauts’ for nothing, besides having both the first and the most recent men on the moon as alumni. We may be called Boilermakers but engineering (as life, itself) marches on. What glorious days those were for America, I recall the entire world stopping to watch Armstrong as he stepped onto the moon. We need that daring, that quest back, to me, that is the essence of America.

And, so, the eternal question, Quo Vadis, where are we going now? Will we choose to subsidize half of our population indefinitely so they don’t have to work or will we go back to our individualistic, self-reliant past.

Yes, we had wreckage along our route, lots of it. Living here in Willa Cather country you can still see how and why this country broke the weak, he sickly and the unlucky. But, you know, it was a fairly small percentage and what a country they bought with their lives and courage and blood and toil and tears and sweat.

We must never forget that we; the whites, the Hispanics, the Native Americans, and the blacks, and even the Chinese, all were here and had a hand in the epic that is America. We are the descendants of the people who one way or another had the courage to come here and build lives and fortunes and hold on to that sacred honor that Jefferson spoke of. You know, all my life I’ve heard that mutts are the best dogs; I guess it true of nations too, If you can’t find a descendant of any nationality on Earth that is an American, you are not trying very hard!

Who We Really Are…On Father’s Day

This is based on an article from Tracie Louise Photography from a couple of years ago and wanted to add quite a lot for Father’s Day. Read her work, it made my monitor blurry, not many do that.

I had told George that I have barely looked at a photograph of my mother since she crossed over, 9 years ago this past Easter.  She encouraged me to get out some pictures and look at them, but this was my response:

… she was my best friend. If I am at all wise, or creative, or kind, or spiritual, it’s because of her. And I know exactly what she would say to this comment… if I want to see her, I only need look into my own eyes, and my own heart. And she would be right. She left her body 9 years ago, and moved onto bigger and better things. She was never that body, it just housed her for a time (way too short a time). But it was never who she really was, and looking at a picture of it, will not bring us any closer. I hope you understand what I am saying… I think I might actually be channelling it directly from her, as it seems far to wise to have come from me 

I lost my grandfather when I was 20 years old.  Pop and I had one of those special bonds… you know the ones.  They don’t require words.  There is just this “knowing” between you.  Mum taught me a great deal about life and death when my Pop passed.  She taught me that if I ever wanted to spend time with my grandfather, to look no further than my own heart.  She taught me that there was no need to visit a cemetery because I wouldn’t find Pop there.  She said that Pop would never be truly gone as long as we were around to remember him… to honour him… to live our lives in a manner that would make him proud.

Please do read Tracie’s wonderful post, Who We Really Are…..

This is exactly how I feel about my Dad, who passed in 1978. I still, in quieter moments feel him around me. One of the more unusual things in my family is that almost all of the men are built alike, right down to suit size, and going completely grey in our twenties. In fact, Dad was buried in his son-in-law’s suit because I needed the one I had for the funeral, all three of us, and most of my uncles as well could have traded clothes. Dad pretty much never lectured, he led, he taught, and he disciplined when necessary rarely was more than “I’m disappointed in you.” necessary. In truth my sister (who was 20 years older than me) said, after he was gone that he had always scared her. I understood what she meant immediately. He never did me but, he sure motivated me. I’ve said before that our family motto is “If it’s not absolutely right, it’s completely wrong,” that came from Dad.

He had a command presence in any company. Once after he retired he took a wrong turn with his motorhome in southern Georgia, near as I can tell, he ended up at the main gate of Fort Benning. He found it funny that the gate guard looked at him took a step back and snapped off a parade ground salute, I figured it was normal. He looked and acted like he was at least a colonel, in fact he acted more like a colonel than most of the colonels I’ve met.

In his professional career he was simply the best: Lineman, Project Superintendent, General Manager, and the job nearly killed him because he was also a micromanager. He knew (the bad part is that he was right) that he could do everyone’s job better than they could. He didn’t tolerate sloppiness or second-rate work. He built the house he lived in for the last 30 years of his life. I mean built with his own two hands. He told me once not long before he passed that it had always bothered him that the house was out of square. A friend of mine from college was selling one of the new laser total stations and I talked him into a demonstration one weekend. Dad was right, the house was out of square, 1/32d of an inch in 135 feet. Dad insisted he could see it.

In his career the people that he got along with best were the operations people, he was one of them, and in the time I was around they were almost all World War II combat veterans. They had the same belief system: right or wrong, yes or no. That’s where I first learned “Yes, sir; no, sir; three bags full, sir”.

He trained me as a lineman, with help from the crews, There wasn’t a piece of utility equipment I couldn’t operate (pretty well, too) by the time I was 14, He let me wire an outbuilding on my own when I was 13, he inspected it and took off some hide verbally on a minor violation of Article 250.

To this day he is there looking over my shoulder, every day. Each and everyday my first thought on a problem is what would Dad do? It’s served me very well, not so much financially, that was never the point, but every decision I’ve made, I could defend to the toughest judge I’ll ever face on Earth, Dad.

But you know the other thing about that. When I got my first few jobs as an electrical contractor, I asked him to back check me both on the plans and in the field. He absolutely refused. It hurt my feelings a lot but now I understand. He had taught me and taught me well: now it was up to me to perform. When I did with few problems, it was a huge confidence booster.

We never talked much, we Norse are world renowned for being taciturn but, you can tell just how men feel about each other when they shake hands, words are superfluous. So I know Dad always knew how much I loved him even as I knew how much he loved me. And like Tracie said, If I want to see him, all I have to do is look in a mirror.

The other thing that I realized is that I give all too often a two dimensional portrait of Dad. There was another side (several in fact). The other family tradition is music. Grampa did two things, ran the town light plant and directed the town band, both were passed down. Of the 7 brothers, 3 worked for utility companies, the other 4 directed high school bands (good ones too, even including one that toured Scandinavia and England). Which is how we got here in the first place, my Great Grampa first came to America on a band tour of Iowa and Minnesota, guess he liked what he saw.

Over at Ace’s yesterday, there was a thread about where would you go back to in history, and given the clientele of the site I wasn’t too surprised that most would go back to the old (what I often call “My”) America, usually about from 1880 to 1920 or so. I feel that way myself often. British Airways a few years ago summed up the wonder of the years pretty well with this.

And that was still another thing about Dad. He never lost his sense of wonder at the marvels we had wrought, He’d watch an airplane from horizon to horizon, had the first TV in town, (and the first air conditioner, I think), and one of the first color TV’s as well, which he built himself. I wonder what he would have thought of the internet. Actually, I don’t. He would have loved it, he loved anything that increased the knowledge and power of the average man, that is one of the main reasons, I think, that he loved and honored America, all his life.

I realize this is getting a bit long but one other thing sticks out in my memory. he married one of the prettiest and likely well-off women in his home town, although I doubt he ever took a dime from his father -in-law, he did it himself. But I don’t think he ever looked at another woman, as a woman again. I can remember commenting on a girl’s looks when I was a teenager (she was beautiful). he just looked at me and said, “I didn’t notice.” He was married to Mom for better than 50 years and completely satisfied, it may have been the strongest partnership ever.

I hope he is half as proud of me as I am of being his son. Let’s end with the quote from Tracie that set me off.

She said that Pop would never be truly gone as long as we were around to remember him… to honour him… to live our lives in a manner that would make him proud.

Why Do I Write So Much About History?

Statue of Edmund Burke in Washington DC. See i...

Edmund Burke Image via Wikipedia

[Yesterday we ran one of Jessica's older posts and today we're going to represent one of mine, not (entirely) because I'm lazy but, because they have kept their relevance, and we have new readers since they were published. If you visit here often (or even seldomly) you've likely noticed that I write a lot about history. This is why. This was originally published in October of 2011, if you remember it, I'm extremely pleased, if not, I hope it speaks to you as well.]

Firstly: Because I like it.

History is one of my personal favorite things, especially military history and the history of technology (which tend to be all mixed up in each other anyway).

Secondly: Because the world we live in was built on the shoulders of giants.

Men like Archimedes and Aristotle, men like Henry V and Stephan Langton, men like Marlborough and Wolfe (and Montcalm), men like John Paul Jones and Nelson, men like Washington and Jefferson, men like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Men like Frederick Douglass and John Calhoun, men like John Bunyan and Henry Ward Beecher, men like Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, men like Carnegie and Edison, men like Alexander Graham Bell and Steve Jobs. And don’t forget the comparable (and incomparable) women like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Abigail Adams who also belong on this list. Without the likes of these people we would still be living in mud huts hunting and gathering our dinner.

Thirdly: If we study how our ancestors solved problems, we give ourselves a head start on solving ours.

While I don’t believe history repeats itself, exactly; but as Mark Twain told us, it surely rhymes. One of the major distinguishing marks of Homo Sapiens is our ability to use external memory; to write things down to help us remember. This is true whether we are memorializing a hunt on a cave wall in France or what I did today on my iPhone. This forms a the basis for a lot of the decisions we make. ” If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Fourthly: Why specifically military and technology?

Because I believe that the individual has much to do with the progress of the human race (for good or ill). The military has several things to offer: It was the very first organization going all the way back to stone age hunting parties, it also preserves our traditions better than we as civilians do, for instance: Do you know why three volleys are fired at a military funeral, it’s not arbitrary, there’s a reason that almost any soldier can tell you. This helps us in uncertain times to build on the past to chart where we want to go in the future. It also has always been the laboratory for leadership.

What technology offers is this: the intelligently lazy man. The guy who got tired of packing his gear who watched a rock roll down the hill and went on to invent the wheel.

OK, I got all that but, I’m an American, what’s with so much English history?

As Americans our history is all mixed up in English history, until 1776 we were English. Our heritage and respect for the individual comes down to us from the Anglo-Saxon Britain, was codified in Magna Charta, reaffirmed in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution and it’s Bill of Rights which preceded ours. Our philosophers of government were English (or Scottish). The American Dream is founded on English freeman’s rights and obligations.

For that matter our thought processes throughout American history have almost always paralleled the English. Differences? Sure, but rarely on the basics. And now we have been allied for nearly a century. I’m with Churchill here when he said: I’m content to see our countries get more and more mixed up in each others affairs. Great Britain in the European Union is, I think, by the way, an abomination. They belong firmly in an association of the Anglosphere. Never has there been such an accumulation of power based on the individual free man, and that is not Europe’s tradition.

When England won control of the sea between 1588 and 1805, she became the final arbiter of global power, and she used it for mostly good purposes, such as outlawing the slave trade and fostering world trade, generally. When Great Britain essentially went broke during World War I, that mantle passed to the United States. This was as Adam Smith had foreseen in The Wealth of Nations in 1776, as he urged the British government to secure a deal with the North American colonists. They didn’t but, it’s worked out fairly well even so.

Finally, a lot of what I do here is what I was taught in 8th Grade history, that we have forgotten or that our schools no longer teach. The men (and women) who preceded us were smart thinking, observant men. Why wouldn’t we want their input on how to rule ourselves?

The Lean Submariner  put up a post which is exactly on point. If there is one thing we have learned over the millennia it is that paying Danegeld is no good. Whether it’s to keep the Danes out of England, or US trade secure. I agree completely with Captain Bainbridge who wrote to a friend:

“The Dey of Algiers, soon after my arrival, made a demand that the United States’ Ship, George Washington, should carry an Ambassador to Constantinople with presents … Every effort was made by me to evade this demand but it availed nothing. The light in which the chief of this regency looks upon the people of the United States may be inferred by his style of expression. He remarked to me. “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves;I have therefore a right to order you as I may think proper.” The unpleasant situation in which I am placed must convince you that I have no alternative left but compliance, or a renewal of hostilities against our commerce. The loss of the frigate and the fear of slavery for myself and crew were the least circumstances to be apprehended, but I know our valuable commerce in these seas would fall a sacrifice to the corsairs of this power of this power, as we have no cruisers to protect it…

I hope I may never again be sent to Algiers with tribute unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon…”

I recommend that you read his entire post, entitled “Bullies Redux“. If you’ve ever doubted the value of military strength, and the will to use it, you will learn the perils of weakness. Would that our so-called leadership would read and heed article like this.

This is an example of building on our knowledge base, whether it is Alfred the Great’s experience or Captain Bainbridge’s. This is how the human race makes progress.

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Autonomous Cars? Really? Why?

Shelley, the autonomous race car

Shelley, the autonomous race car (Photo credit: Saad Faruque)

So are you excited about what they’re calling ‘Autonomous Cars’? Personally I think them a horrible idea.

First, the more complex you make any system, the more prone to failure it is, and these systems are complex indeed. You also have to think about their failure mode. In my business, in the old relay days, when something failed, it would usually stop. With electronics, failure usually means that they go full speed until something outside intervenes. You know like Toyota throttles.

Cruise controls, even what they call adaptive cruise controls are fine, probably even good for safety, a sort of back up for momentary inattention, which we are all guilty of. Almost anything like that is a positive good, as long as the operator can override it at any time.

But, the fully autonomous car, on the other hand, where you tell the car where you want to go, and it takes care of it, is a different kettle of fish, and it smells worse than 3-year-old Lutefisk.

First, if your fancy car goes wrong and kills 5 people by running over them, and setting Neiman-Marcus on fire on the way, You’re going to end up liable. Sure some will try to blame the manufacturer, and possibly it might work occasionally but, the basic rule in American court is ‘deep pockets win’. Who has deeper pockets? You, or the Ford Motor Company. That’s what I thought.

More at Who Is Liable When a Self-Driving Car Crashes?

And what are you going to do when NSA or the police tell your car; “Go directly to jail, do not pass go.” Why can’t they? Your car is talking to who knows who, all the time anymore, even when you’re not. Keep reading.

And by the way, airplanes have had autopilots since the 1940s, they still have 2 (count ‘em 2) pilots, and people get very excited when they take a nap at work. Even though there are autopilots available that could manage the aircraft from terminal to terminal. What do the airline people know that we don’t?

And then there’s this. Kit Lange writing on The Victory Girls Blog tell us this,

But the privacy war isn’t just raging on the internet.  It’s in your car too.  Ford VP of Marketing and Sales, Jim Farley, got a bit too honest at an electronic trade show in Vegas this week.

“We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone,” he told attendees.

Naturally, Farley retracted his statements and put up a clarifier: “I absolutely left the wrong impression about how Ford operates. We do not track our customers in their cars without their approval or consent.”

The problem with that is this: By purchasing a car with GPS, you are approving and consenting to be tracked.  That’s how GPS works.  It can’t tell you where to go without tracking where you are.  In other words, his retraction is actually a confirmation.

Continue reading Google, Ford, and the NSA’s Fight to Stay in Control

Frankly, I think I’ll keep driving for myself, thank you very much. And by preference I’ll do it in a car that doesn’t tell the world every half-second or so where it is, either.

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All Aboard

One of my favorite writers and bloggers, Rachel Charmley of Changing Skin and other stories ( you should follow her blog, if you like good fiction) asked me the other day what it is like to travel on American trains. Rachel is British and so lives in a land that has nothing but what we would call regional trains, much like, I suppose, our North East Corridor service. This is my response, I hope it pleases her. :-)

picAMT35005You know when Jess was talking about my trip back east, here, she said this:

Well, Neo is on his way East by train; somehow that seems a much more appropriate mode of travel for our favourite engineer than a plane; it is also, and that seems appropriate too, a more civilised way of travelling.

Other than the fact that she overstates my qualifications rather dramatically, she’s right. It is much more civilized, hearkening back to a time when we treated each other in a civilized manner, no matter our station in life. As a conservative, and as a practical man, I have many qualms about Amtrak qua Amtrak but, it remains my preferred method of travel.

One of the things that bugs me is the high cost of sleeping accommodations on the train, like so many things in America, there is a historical reason for it. Up until World War I, a sleeper berth was affordable for almost anyone travelling and then the Wilson administration took over the railroads during the war (and mucked the job up so badly that Roosevelt didn’t even consider it) and added an extra fare for first class trains, like so many temporary government measures, it’s still with us today.

I’ve written before about the trip, in an article called Reflections on a Train Trip, which talks a bit about the sights one sees on the trip, so there’s little point in talking about it again. Instead let’s talk a bit about the predecessor roads on this trip.

$_35When I leave, I join my train at an old division point of the Chicago Burlington and Quincy, Usually called the Burlington Route. This is the route of one of the very first streamliners in the 1930s, The Denver Zephyr, last I knew one of the train sets was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, The Burlington itself was of course the king of the Granger Roads, reaching into nearly every county between the Mississippi and Denver, and taking a large share of the agricultural production of the Heartland to Chicago or New Orléans for transhipment. It was a solid, conservative road, financed by Boston money, which was often British in origin. We will follow this route through the shops of the Burlington at Burlington, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River all the way to Chicago. If all goes well this leg will last about 13 hours starting at 0100 Central time and will cover about 706 miles.

A panoramic view of the front of the station

A panoramic view of the front of the station

That will bring us into Chicago Union Station at 14:50 still in the Central time zone. Transcontinental train travel in America has nearly always gone through Chicago, this has always been the major change from eastern roads to western, although there are others, such as St. Louis and New Orléans. But Chicago was built by the railroads and shipping, it grew from shipping the produce of the “Breadbasket of the World” to the world, by rails and by lake. It is quite a town, at once one of the largest Polish cities in the world, one of the largest Irish cities in the world, and many others. Home to jazz, pizza, pirogues, and ribs.



At 18:40 we will be off on the Capitol Limited. This train carries the name of the Chesapeake and Ohio’s flagship train, which was famed for the scenery in the Potomac Gorge, and its wonderful chicken pot pie, back in the old days. It’s route includes using the New York Central’s route across Ohio and Indiana, which was the only way the C&O could compete on time with the Pennsylvania’s Washington section of the Broadway Limited. When things are good, I’ll usually buy a sleeper on this leg, there’s enough time to get a reasonable nights sleep, which is not true on the western leg. This was not that year, but you know, unlike like the cattle car confines of an airplane, long distance coaches have enough room (especially leg room) to sleep fairly well without beating each other up,

pa_pittsburgh04If all goes well, I will leave the train in Pittsburgh at about 05:00 the next morning, having racked up another 491 miles. And here our layover will be rather boring since Amtrak’s depot is in the basement of the old Penn Station, and the only services are a bank of vending machines, and waiting room chairs more suited to an airport. :-) But it’s fairly short because at 07:30 we’ll be off riding the Pennsylvanian.

PRR_LogoAnd here we are on the track of what was known as the “Standard Railroad of the World” the Pennsylvania Railroad. It got that way because it was a mountain road competing with the water level route of the New York Central on one of the great trade routes of the world: New York to Chicago. It was done so well that the cost per mile was almost exactly the same to ship either road, as was the transit time. It was done by sheer engineering and competence, and maintaining the standards. Earlier, I referred to the Broadway Limited, many assume it refers to the street in New York City, it doesn’t. It recalls the “broad way of steel”, the Pennsylvania’s four track main from New York to Pittsburgh, where the Pennsylvania proper ended. from there it ran on leased lines, The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railway (The Fort Wayne), The Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad (The Pan Handle Route) to Chicago and St. Louis, and others.

42419728On the main west of Altoona, Pennsylvania is one of the engineering wonders of the world, the Horseshoe Curve. which was built by hand to replace the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which was very slow and expensive. Just a few miles on is Altoona itself, where the PRR’s main shops were located, and they manufactured their own steam locomotives and freight cars. And then when we reach Harrisburg, where we will change out our diesel locomotive for an electric, in what was (and still is) the largest electrification project on an American railroad. It started when the Railroad built the Hells Gate bridge into Manhattan, and the tunnels into the island as well to serve the station they were building: Pennsylvania Station, New York.

In one of the greatest acts of architectural vandalism ever committed, the station itself, based on the Roman Baths of Caracalla and on the scale of St. Peter’s Nave in Rome, was demolished in the early sixties to build the new Madison Square Garden. This is what spawned the historic building preservation movement in the United States.

300px-Amfleet_I_seatsAnd at about 14:12 we will reach our station, having journeyed almost exactly half way across the continent in a total of 36 hours, pretty comfortably, and treated with courtesy and respect all the way. Although I will admit that the diner is not what it used to be, a bland, overcooked steak, doesn’t compare to the first really good meal I had, Roast Duck l’Orange in the diner of a second class Pennsylvania train in the mid 60s, it’s still a bunch better than a bag of peanuts and a bottle of water, in a seat designed for a pygmy in a cattle car called an airplane, although I do fly when necessary, I consider it quite suboptimal.


Then and Now

Wright Flyer III de 1905

Wright Flyer III de 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


110 years ago today, a plan came together. A couple of bicycle mechanic from Dayton, Ohio studied some stuff, worked hard, applied what they learned, and today they made the first powered flight by a heavier than air craft.

They were of course Orville and Wilbur Wright, and they changed the world. And all that I said above was true, and more. They studied bird’s wings until they figured out that they needed an airfoil. They needed an engine with far more specific output per pound than was available, so they made it. they built their models and then built the first wind tunnel to test them. And on and on and on.

The thing was, they had a high school education and maybe a bit of business school. Just average Americans, doing something nobody else in the world had ever done. Once their plane worked, improvements came fast and furiously, but the famous SR-71, still the fastest and highest flying aircraft ever, even though it is now retired, Blackbird which was faster than a rifle bullet, used exactly the same principles as the Wright Flyer.

Average Americans inventing something that had been dreamed of by Kings and Emperors since the dawn of time.

Today, a mere hundred and ten years ago


You can’t get a woodstove, or much of anything else fixed, let alone built. A friend of mine, The Adaptive Curmudgeon had his woodstove break, and no, woodstoves are no longer a steel or cast iron box, with a campfire inside. The EPA fixed that oversight a decade or so ago.

Let’s start with a Curmudgeonly gem of insight shall we

Anyone who refers to ‘homesteading’ as ‘the simple life’ is utterly and irretrievably full of shit. What’s simple is working 30 years in a cubicle while cutting a check for civilization to do your dirty work for you. Going your own way is complex. Fixing your own problems is physically and emotionally challenging. Never forget that a brain surgeon can screw up a vegetable garden.

Yup, he’s got that right, it’s easy to make money and write checks, fix it yourself, I dare you, or even better build it yourself, the Wright brothers did, and you’re smarter than a bicycle mechanic aren’t you?

Here’s how it goes, and yes, I’ve been on both sides of this conversation

Me on the phone: “Hello I’m looking for someone to service a wood stove.”

Other guy: “Where do you live?”

Me: “Mumble mumble mumble”

Other guy: “Where?”

Me: (Saying it clearly this time.)

Other guy: “Hells bells I wouldn’t drive there for all the tea in China.”

Me: “I will buy you all the tea in China.”

Other guy: “No, the boss won’t go for it.”

Me: “I will pay cash. The boss doesn’t need to know shit. I’ll throw in a six pack, two steaks, and plane tickets to Tahiti.”

Other guy: “Can’t do it.”

Me: “For any amount of money?”

Other guy: “You know how it is; liability and stuff.”

Me: “I won’t sue. I will kill any lawyer who sues.”

Other guy: “Ha ha.”

Me: “Capitalism is dead isn’t it.”

Other guy: (Sighing) “I can’t take your money so maybe it is.  We’re all screwed.”

Read the whole article, it’ll tell you a good bit of what’s wrong with the world.

So, how do you fix a woodstove, these days? Like everything else, you don’t. You throw it away and buy another one, which will cost more and be made more cheaply than one that broke, probably in China, and will last about 3 days longer than the warranty.

That Wright Flyer? It’s hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian, it would probably still work, because it was made to last.

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