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July 30, 2011

Cher Ami

This is a trip through Wikipedia I took recently. Earlier in the week I was in Wilmington for a Peace Corps reunion and as we were driving by the airport, one of my friends asked me to look up the symbol for the Wilmington airport, which it turns out is ILM. He was wondering where that came from. The article didn't say (I suspect WIL was already taken, so they took the ILM from Wilmington), but had some other neat facts like the airport is a backup emergency landing strip for the space shuttle if something happened during launch. Originally the space shuttle needed 10,000 feet to land, but they improved the brakes and only needed 7,500 feet, which allowed ILM to become a backup.

The article said that at one time the airport had been named Blumenthal Field for Arthur Blementhal. His article said he was an All American football player from Princeton and the first person from North Carolina to die in World War I when the plane he was flying for the French was shot down by German planes. For this he received his second Croix de Guerre. So I looked that up and it turns out the "War Cross" is a medal given to foreigners who distinguish themselves fighting for the French. A list of notable recipients of the Croix de Guerre included Cher Ami, a British homing pigeon in World War I used by American troops. So I had to click on that and read the story of the Lost Battalion in World War I, about five hundred men who had been cut off from their lines during the battle of Verdun and were being attacked by both the Germans and the allies and had no way of calling for help except by sending messages by homing pigeon. They released two pigeons who were picked off by the Germans, but the third, nicknamed Cher Ami, made it through despite also being shot, and eventually the Lost Battalion was saved (or about half of them, the rest were captured or killed). Once I read that article, I think I remember reading a story about Cher Ami in grade school.

July 20, 2011

The Bellamy Salute

The other day at lunch we were talking about the Pledge of Allegiance for some reason and wondering when it was written. I thought it was written in the 1800's. So I looked it up on my iPod's copy of Wikipedia. I was barely right: it was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy. The article has a good history of the Pledge. It has been revised several times since. In 1923, they added "of the United States" apparently so immigrants would know they were pledging to our flag and not their old flag. Still not specific enough, I guess, they added "of America" the following year. I guess there was a lot of confusion about which United States people were pledging their allegiance. It wasn't until 1954 that "under God" was added.

Anyway, the thing that really cracked me up was reading about a salute that was added to the Pledge by Bellamy himself, called the Bellamy salute or just the "flag salute." He thought people should stretch out their right hand upwards towards the flag with their palm down as they began reciting the Pledge. This continued to be practiced until 1939 when President Roosevelt decided it looked entirely too much like a Hitler salute and instructed people to put their right hand over their heart instead.

July 13, 2011

Carmageddon and an Engineering Pioneer

NBC News has had a couple of stories about "Carmageddon" which is a nickname given to the closing of the I-405 Highway in Los Angeles. I wanted to see how long they would be closing the interstate, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and wound up on the I-405 page, which told they are only closing it for a weekend which doesn't seem that bad to me. In the article is an old picture of two of the engineers on the project. What I knew was very unusual about the picture was that it was so old and that there were two women engineers involved, including the designer of the bridge (the other unusual thing is that the engineers are given any credit at all for the highway appearing).


I honestly don't think Georgia had any women bridge engineers until the 1980's. So this was pretty impressive, especially because this was a pretty major project, using complicated designs with primitive computers, and in one of the country's worst seismic zones. I wanted to see if I could find out anything else about the bridge engineer in the picture, Marilyn Reece. A Google search quickly found her obituary from 2004 in the Los Angeles Times. They had a great write-up about this pioneer who was the first female civil engineer to become a Professional Engineer in California. They said she became an engineer because she liked math and didn't want to be a teacher.

July 7, 2011

Gutter Screws

Ever since before I bought my house there have been problems with the gutters. One of the things in my home inspection report (14 years ago!) was to re-attach some gutters that had come off and were directing water towards a side door of the house. They fixed that, but that same gutter caused problems later. I bought some new, bigger nails and tried using those to keep the gutter up, but it kept coming loose. I think when it would rain the water would concentrate the parts that were loose and sagging and pull the nails out even further. So I was thinking I could probably get new gutters, making sure the gutters were graded higher in between the downspouts so water would flow correctly. This would be expensive, so I was looking on the internet for advice on gutters and found out about gutter screws. Instead of nails they use long screws that replace the nails and hold the gutter securely even if the nails were slipping out of the holes before. I mentioned these to a friend at work and he said that's what he used on his house when he installed new gutters and that I had used gutter screws a few years earlier when I helped him install a gutter at his neighbor's house. I remembered it once he told me about it. The screws have a Robertson head which works kind of like an Allen wrench, but with a square wrench instead of a hex one like an Allen wrench. I'm not sure why they use this, but they include a Robertson drill bit in the package so you can attach it to your power screwdriver or drill and drive the gutter screws. I bought a box of 10 screws at Home Depot to try them out and installed six last night and four more tonight. I think these things will work great and probably save me several thousand dollars in the short term since I won't need new gutters for a little while longer. I still need to do something because I have some water damage going on in some places, so that still needs to be looked at . . .

July 1, 2011

Trench 94

A lot of people (at least in the south) know that uranium fuel was produced in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War 2. However, plutonium was also used in the bombs and this was all produced at the Hanford Site in Washington state. Hanford is now the most contaminated nuclear site in the US and the site of the biggest environmental cleanup. It is also the home of Trench 94, which can be seen in satellite pictures available on Google Earth.


The United States launched its first nuclear powered submarine, the Nautilus, in 1954. And it has built hundreds more since then. Many of them served out their lives and were decommissioned. The problem then was what to do with the old nuclear reactors they carried. The old fuel was removed for processing or storage, but this still left a big piece of radioactive metal. So what they do is put the submarine in dry dock, cut everything in front of the reactor off, then everything behind the reactor off, This leaves them with a big steel cylinder. They then attach a plate to the front and back, barge it up the Columbia River to the Hanford Site, and put it in Trench 94. So each of the barrels in Trench 94 is actually a piece of submarine. You can see the process on this web page. One guy has put together page about that numbers all the reactors and tells which submarine they came from (that picture is at the bottom of this page.

Most of the reactors have been there for a while, but supposedly the trench has been left open so that Russia can verify the submarines are scrapped. Plus they probably keep having to put more reactors there. These containers are supposed to last for 600 years.