Adventures in Europe

No matter how many times it happens to me, I’m never totally comfortable when I am stranded near a nuclear power plant and witness an explosion. I suspect this is a good thing. But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.

This story is the first of three documenting my recent trip to Germany. If you are anything like me, you may be wondering what exactly I was doing several thousand of miles away from my apartment in Boulder, Colorado. Like every other aspect of my life, it just happened.

The whole situation started when I decided to accompany Scott (a friend I have known since I was three years old) to visit his parents who recently moved to Stuttgart, Germany. After flying into the airport at Frankfurt we found our luggage and met up with Scott’s parents. We piled our stuff into the back of the used Volvo they purchased after arriving in the country and headed out on the Autobahn.

I’m not exactly sure what caused the car to overheat on the way back from the airport. I suspect it was either a larger than usual payload, extreme heat and humidity, or what the German people like to refer to as “fahrfegnugen.” Before this trip I had always assumed it to be a condiment for bratwurst. Whatever the reason, we pulled over at a rest stop to investigate the situation in more detail.

After coming to a complete stop and opening the hood of the car, the three males got out to troubleshoot the situation. A few minutes of quiet contemplation produced three completely different and largely contradictory explanations as to the cause of the overheating. It was either A) the radiator, B) the water pump, or C) the windshield wiper fluid. Always the optimist, I decided to choose the one component in the car which I knew the most about. Having run out of windshield wiper fluid in my own car before, I knew how to handle the situation. The fact that the situation shared no common symptoms with my previous experience in no way influenced my diagnosis of the situation.

My idea about the windshield wiper fluid being low turned out to be incorrect. After locating the reservoir, it quickly became apparent there was enough of this fluid for the car to operate. Adding to my extensive database of car repair knowledge, I now hypothesize that windshield wiper fluid is not directly related to the regulating the temperature of an automobile engine. At least for Volvos.

While I did learn something new, it wasn’t proving to be immediately useful in getting the car back in working order. After letting the engine cool down a little bit we slowly opened the radiator cap and noticed it seemed a bit low on whatever type of fluid it was suppose to contain. We ended up pouring a bottle of water I had filled up back at the airport into the radiator. We started the car back up and the temperature returned to an acceptable level. We cautiously got back on the highway.

After a few minutes, the temperature returned to its “too hot” reading on the dashboard. Lacking any actual numbers on the temperature gauge, I can only make an educated guess as to what constitutes an abnormally high engine temperature. Based on causal observations I believe the far left side of the gauge represents room temperature and the far right side represents the surface temperature of the sun.

So once again we pull off the highway. This time, however, we stopped right next to a nuclear power plant. This is when I remembered I recently purchased a membership in AAA. I whipped out my cell phone and called the 1-800 number. After explaining the situation with the vehicle overheating the woman on the other end of the line explained to me that AAA stands for something something of America, and that they did not have the resources to dispatch a tow truck to Germany.

After several additional calls to a more local automobile support group, we were able to get some assistance. A man in bright orange overalls filled the radiator full of water. He then shook one of the rubber hoses that ran from the radiator to some other part of the engine. I don’t think he should have done that. The hose burst open and steam and water came flying out in all directions. The guy wasn’t hurt, but the car seemed to be done moving under its own power for the day.

Eventually a tow truck arrived and took us all to the local Volvo shop. By then it was after 6 PM on Saturday. Being that we were in Europe the shop had already closed. The sign on the window said, “We will be open again in September-October at the latest.” We left the car at the dealership and took a series of taxis and trains to get the rest of the way back to Scott’s parent’s house.

The flight from Denver, Colorado to Frankfurt, Germany took roughly nine hours. Getting the rest of the way only took another six. We did all manage to get there without any other difficulties. I learned a lot on the trip, and I’ll never forget how to say in German that, “The automobile has exploded by the nuclear power plant.”

How Computers Work: Part 4

The year was 1946- the world was busy with its new, “Can’t we all just get along?” campaign, the United States military was busy building, among other things, the most technologically advanced computational devices the world had ever seen, and the weather seemed, in general, more pleasant than usual. The answer to the first questions is by in large, “No, we can’t all just get along.” The part about the weather turned out to be nothing more than a statistical anomaly. Which leaves the part about constructing computers unexplored. Put your thinking caps on as we prepare to examine this topic in an objective and historically accurate manner.

In order to make this machine sound more like a cute, furry animal and less like a cold blooded killing machine, the people who came up with the idea in the first place decided to call it “Eniac.” While this name sounds somewhat cute and furry, its meaning comes from an old Czechoslovakian phrase that roughly translates to “factory workers with steel shells who attempt to enslave humanity.” The United States built Eniac after identifying a need to calculate the trajectories for their long range thermonuclear weapons.

Once constructed, the military also discovered they could use Eniac to beat the Russians at their own game: tic-tac-toe. After months of tedious programming, the system consistently advised players to always go first and pick the center square. Future versions of Eniac were enhanced to play the game show variations of tic-tac-toe such as “Tic Tac Dough” and “Hollywood Squares.” Some of the general pointers for these games generated by Eniac included, “Caution: Wink Martindale is a robot” and, “Agreeing to appear on Hollywood Squares automatically makes you a loser.”

The heart of the Eniac consisted of thousands of small vacuum tubes that were used to store information while calculations were being performed. While bulky and unreliable compared to the technology available today, these vacuum tubes were a critical component for Eniac to function properly. When a vacuum tube malfunctioned, one of the operators had to locate and replace the tube with a fresh new one. This maintenance consumed quite a bit of the operators time and, by in large, kept them from their favorite activity involving day dreaming of a future where all enemies of the United States could be destroyed with a push of a button.

The process quickly became tiresome and the military eventually hired low paid foreigners to change out the malfunctioning tubes at night. In the meantime, the men and women who built Eniac could focus on the next objective of deciding on the color of the buttons that would be used to fire the missiles their computer was helping aim all around the world. In the end they chose red.

This system created somewhat of a security issue when the mathematicians and computational theorist came into work one day and noticed the 200 ton computer was missing. Naturally the cleaning staff was accused of walking off with the system after everyone else had gone home for the evening. These individuals continually proclaimed their innocence in their native language, which really didn’t do anything to help their cause. In fact, it made them look like raving lunatics-exactly the type of individuals who would steal a state of the art computer. Eventually they were cleared of any and all wrong doing after a complete audit of all the militaries computational devices located the lost piece of equipment. For reasons that have never been completely explained, Eniac was accidentally placed in a seldomly used supply closet.

One rather critical issue with the Eniac computer involved error handling. This system was constructed long before traditional computer screens with the ability to turn completely blue had been invented. To put this time frame into perspective, the top computer scientists of the day were just beginning to coin the phrase “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B.” Despite incredible advances in the field of computers, much of the behavior of the Eniac system is to this day not completely understood. For example, when an error occurred in a program, the system would calmly and confidently instruct the Navy to launch every long range missile at the five richest kings of Prussia.

Eniac represented a monumental investment in time and money for the United States. Fortunately, World War II was, for the most part, an “away” war that left our nations infrastructure intact. While most other countries in the world were busy rebuilding roads and buildings, we were able to get a head start on the computer craze. Eniac blazed the path for modern day computers. Most importantly, it started an entirely new belief that given enough time every sufficiently powerful computer will eventually do everything in its power once its operators have let their guards down to take over the planet and enslave humanity.

Groundhog Days

While I am generally happy with my apartment in Boulder, Colorado, I’ve never had an abundance of love for my patio area. In the past I’ve commented on how it directly faces one of the busiest roads in the city and does its best to not foster any type of a social environment. Sure, it’s a good place to keep my barbecue grill, but that’s about it. The other day, however, I found a completely new and unexpected use for this architectural monstrosity. For better or worse, I can use my patio to trap local wildlife.

This whole situation started, like so many of my stories, with me innocently sitting on my couch watching television. Right in the middle of a rerun of “Family Ties” I heard a strange scurrying noise near my patio. The fun part of living in an apartment involves putting up with everyone else’s noises. Over the past two years I have been able to completely tune out the normal noises of traffic, the lawn getting mowed, and the woman in the apartment above me hosting weekly square dancing competitions. Aside from my Thursday night dreams containing a higher percentage of serenading and “do-si-do”ing than during the rest of the week, these noises do not seem to have a large impact on my life.

But this sound did not register in my brain as one of the typical apartment sounds. I jumped to the conclusion that a small furry animal was scurrying around near my patio. I stood up and looked outside to see my initial guess was exactly correct. A ground hog was sitting on the concrete barrier of my patio. I’m not sure exactly what he found so interesting about my patio. For a few minutes we just stood there looking at each other. I was thinking to myself, “I hope he doesn’t fall off the concrete ledge and get trapped on my patio.” He was thinking, “I wonder what happened before the Big Bang? Was there just nothingness or did the cosmos exist… OOOOOOOO CRAPPPPPP!!!”

The next thing I knew the groundhog population of my patio had suddenly increased by one. I have no idea why he decided to make the four foot vertical plunge onto my patio, but it quickly became clear that he was not equipped to make a four foot vertical jump to escape. After recovering from the fall, he ran around in a big circle a few times and then decided the best course of action was to hide in the corner under my barbecue grill.

I like to think of myself as a pro-animal person. Especially the cute little furry ones. I briefly thought about keeping him as a pet. But then I remembered how they instinctively burrow tunnels for their homes. I looked around my apartment and decided I would probably be better off without having small mammals running around inside my upholstered furniture.

I wasn’t really sure what to do at this point. The one thing I was sure of was that the groundhog was either unable or unwilling to get out of my porch without some form of outside assistance. I didn’t have any little groundhog sized ladders I could set up to help the poor guy out. Instead I opened up my patio and front door a few inches. I moved my coffee table over to form a path way for the groundhog to get away through my front door.

I tried gesturing to the animal that it was in its best interest to follow the path I had just constructed. I don’t think I would make a very good professional mime– the groundhog just sat motionless under the grill, oblivious to my frantic pointing towards the door. I decided a more proactive approach was needed. So I moved the grill out from the corner of the porch and tossed a few rocks around him in the hopes of getting him in motion. After about five or six attempts, it became clear that 1) I throw like a girl and 2) the groundhog realized this and didn’t feel any particular reason to move out of the way from these incoming projectiles.

My attempts were finally successful when I went inside and got the broom out. I knew there was a reason why I bought it years ago. After a few gentle nudges with the broom, the animal finally went into motion. He quickly located the escape route I created for him and scurried out the front door. Problem solved. I’m not sure what exactly I have learned from this experience. I suppose the moral of this story is that groundhogs are not very smart. The odds of them suddenly progressing through an evolutionary advancement and enslaving humanity do not seem to be very good at this point.