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April 21, 2011

Transcontinental Railroad

I just finished reading Nothing Like It in the World, a book about the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860's. There were two companies involved, the Central Pacific coming from California (CP) and the Union Pacific coming from Omaha (UP) (there was no railroad bridge across the Missouri River in Omaha until after the railroad was finished).

It took a long time to get through the book even though it isn't that long. It just isn't that exciting, even for an engineer. But there are a few highlights. Both companies were trying to go as fast as possible and quality didn't matter to them that much. One reason was it was very expensive to move materials, because there wasn't a railroad yet. The company in California got its rails, spikes, and railroad cars from the eastern part of the US via ship going around South America (there wasn't a Panama Canal until much later, though there was a very short transcontinental railroad across the isthmus, built in 1855). So most of the bridges were built out of wood, knowing they would need to be replaced with something more substantial later.

The UP coming from Omaha had a much easier job, able to build across the Great Plains. They were able to achieve a record by laying 2 miles of tracks in one day. A rail car would be pushed to the front of the line with rails and ties, which would be unloaded and laid out in front of the car. But soon the car was empty and in the way of the next car behind it. Since there was only one track they just pushed the car over on its side so the next car could be pushed forward. Once the train was past, they would push the overturned cars back over and onto the track and bring them back empty. Eventually they were able to get 4 miles in one day.

Meanwhile the CP was immediately stuck with getting over mountains in California and had a hard time getting labor, partly because gold had just been discovered in California and everybody left to go try to get rich. They wound up hiring Chinese and then bringing more and more Chinese over once they realized how hard the Chinese would work without grumbling, getting drunk, or killing each other (like the Irish).

Once the CP got into Nevada and Utah, they hit some flat land and could really make a lot of progress. Soon they broke the UP's record by laying six miles of track in a day. Not much later, the UP got the record back with 8 miles in a day. That record stood for a long time but the UP was soon bogged down working their way up Promontory Summit, just a few miles from where the two lines would meet. Meanwhile the CP was still on flat land as they worked their way East. Knowing the the UP only had 6 miles to go, the CP, with 16 miles to go, made their move and was able to knock out 10 miles in one day, laying 6 miles of track before lunch break. There were 8 big Irish guys that would put the rails in place. They were only supposed to work until lunch and then be relieved, but they wanted to keep going, so those 8 guys carried all 10 miles of rail that day. Really 20 miles of rail since there are two rails on the track. The UP, with only 8 miles to go, had no chance of breaking the record. In fact, the book says the record has never been broken. A few days after that, 101 years before Grant's birthday, they drove the golden spike. They took the golden spike back out immediately because it really was made of gold and they knew some of the now unemployed workers would take it. In fact, people carved off pieces of the last railroad tie to keep as a souvenir. So many people did it that six railroad ties wound up missing.

April 14, 2011

Emergency Radio

For some reason I was thinking about weather emergencies, so I started looking for a battery-powered weather radio. In Thailand I had a shortwave radio that could get broadcasts of Voice of America and BBC which was pretty neat and I thought I might want a shortwave radio. But those get kind of expensive and I just don't see me using it that much since everything on TV and radio in the US is already in English. I found a couple of radios out there that use hand cranks that you can use for a minute or so to charge the internal battery and then get 15-30 minutes of radio play. What I would really prefer is a radio that uses regular AA (or AAA) NiMH batteries that could be charged by the crank. That's because the little NiMH battery pack can wear out or stop holding a charge, which is pretty likely since it's being drained down pretty far, and then you would have to get a new one for who knows how much.

For weather, there are 7 different weather station frequencies used by NOAA and the National Weather Service. The frequencies are in VHF instead of AM or FM where it would have been really easy. There used to be real people broadcasting the weather, but now it is all automated robot voices, which isn't too bad because it seems to be more current.

One feature they have now is radios that come on by themselves when there is a severe weather alert. They also have Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME). This lets you enter the county where you live so that the radio comes on only for weather emergencies that affect your county. You can also program the type of alert you want to hear about, for instance severe thunderstorms, tornado watches, tornado warning, etc. Live on high ground? Then you can cancel tsunami alerts.

So that's a neat feature but reading through Amazon's reviews, the alert radios like that use a lot of battery power because they are really on all the time monitoring the broadcast. So people recommended getting an AC power SAME radio to get the alert and then a portable battery-powered radio for after the power goes out. That made sense, but I skipped the alert radio altogether and just got the little battery-powered one.

So Eton makes a whole range of these radios. A lot of them have cranks so that you don't have to worry about a dead battery. The one I picked out is pretty small but has a ton of features. It also has a solar cell on top so that it be powered by the sun although they say it takes 8 hours of sun to get 3 hours of radio play, which means the sun can't even keep it running (though maybe using headphones it would). It has AM and FM too which is good and people said the sound is good (and it really is for such a small radio) and has 3 little white LED's that are used as a really weak flashlight, but the most intriguing feature is a USB power port. You can turn the crank and it powers the USB port which can then charge your phone, iPod, or anything else that can get power from a USB port. Well . . . I got it and it doesn't charge my iPod Touch. And the charging icon on my 4G nano flashes on and off, so I don't know if it is really charging or not. I ordered a universal USB-to-gadget connector for it to see if it would charge my phone. I'm not real hopeful on that either though since it said you might need to crank for 15-30 minutes to get 1 minute of phone time. The problem is that the power supplied by the crank is extremely variable unless you could somehow crank at a perfectly constant speed. What I think would be good is if it had a USB port powered by the regular NiMH batteries I also wish it had. Then you could use it as a battery charger, cranking until the batteries were full and then putting in some depleted batteries. I'm not real sure that would work though because I don't think the crank is producing a whole lot of power at all, though clearly more than the little solar panel which requires hours of direct sunlight to get a couple of minutes worth of cranking power.

April 5, 2011

Quantum Tunneling Composite

Last year one of the guys on the BLF discussion board bought some stuff called Quantum Tunnelling Composite that he wanted to play around with. He had to buy a bunch of it and I had never even heard of it before and he didn't have much luck with it. It is some kind of rubber that conducts electricity when compressed, but it doesn't conduct when it isn't compressed. In between it can give you varying results. So his idea (which he had seen somewhere else) was to put it in a flashlight and then adjust pressure on the battery and QTC to get variable output by tightening or loosening the head of the flashlight. Because he had a lot of the stuff he ended up giving some of it away to others who wanted to play around with it too and they came up with ways of using it. It works best with a simple on/off flashlight. You turn it to On and then adjust the pressure. Those people had some success and made videos of it in action. Anyway, now the guy is ordering some more and offered to mail it to people at cost, so I asked for a few pieces. I like it just for the cool name, which is explained on Wikipedia as having to do with electrons tunneling through the rubber stuff to get to the metal pieces that are in there. As it is compressed, the metal pieces get closer together and apparently there are some quantum effects going on.

Whatever. If I can make it work in a flashlight that will be cool. I have a kind of half-broken flashlight that uses AA batteries in a really tight fit and it might be perfect for that.

Here's a post where a guy videotapes a highly modified Mini Maglite that he has fitted with QTC.