Horse Latitudes
Idle thoughts while going nowhere fast


High school means many things, and one thing it means is the SAT.

(Or the ACT. Or both. And there was the PSAT. I wonder, did anyone take the PSAT as preparation for the ACT? Did it help?)

In the mid-1960s I took them all. And then I took the whole testing game a step furthur than most. I took the Navy ROTC test. That was not it's exact name. But that is what it was.

The prize for passing the Navy test was a full tuition and living expenses for four years in college. In return one then served four years of active duty as a well-paid naval officer. The alternative to being a naval officer was likely to be two years as an army private, at a time when army privates were generally not at all happy with their lot in life. Or their pay.


Shortly after I reported aboard USS Odax, we went into the yard and had big holes cut into our pressure hull to install a new battery. This was a big deal, of course. After a couple of months of industrial activity aboard, we then were required to prove that we could remember how to run the boat, both on the surface and while submerged. This process goes by the name of RefTra, or Refresher Training.


My uncle was a very responsible and respected church elder in Port Arthur, Texas. He was active in civic affairs, and was president of the Texas chapter of his professional society.

Port Arthur and Beaumont, both in Jefferson County, Texas, next to the Louisiana border, were hotbeds of crime and corruption. They are both refinery towns, and there were always lots of roughnecks and tanker sailors around, and the oil money was flowing like, well, oil. When my younger cousin finished high school, my uncle felt that it was time to take a risk, stand up for something, and fight the forces of evil around Lake Sabine.

ALTERNATIVE Many period movies shot in the U.S. miss the detail that STOP signs were required to be yellow until 1954. That's when the red signs were first called for, due to the development of a new red paint that didn't fade when exposed to sunlight all day every day. By 1966 the transition was largely complete, and by 1971 it was mandatory.

I suspect German chemists working with coal tar extracts for the breakthrough, but I could be wrong.

FENCES may or may not fall into this category.

Here is a list of vulgar fractions in a form that you can copy and paste sort of like emoji. These items have no numeric value for the purpose of calculations.

⅒ ⅑ ⅛ ⅐ ⅙ ⅕ ¼ ⅓ ⅜ ⅖ ½ ⅗ ⅝ ⅔ ¾ ⅘ ⅚ ⅞ ⅟

My grandfather engraved the history of his enlistment onto the lid of his mess kit. I think he probably did it on the troop ship home. It has been passed down eldest son to eldest son. I put it in a nice frame lined with an old army blanket, and it's hanging on the wall directly above my monitor as I sit here and type.Mess Kit Lid
ALTERNATIVE The height of the Seine is referenced to a horizontal line that was scribed at the Austerlitz bridge in 1850. The zero reference is two meters above the scribed line. Apparently two meters was chosen as an arbitrary safety margin to allow for the draft, or keel depth, of a typical large unpowered river boat back in the day.

There is a sensor at the Austerlitz reference point, and the sensor has been used remotely by government agencies, and therefore by news agencies, to report river heights. The predictions were not accurate early in June, 2016. A maintenance worker was sent to check on the sensor. It was found to be fouled with debris. When the debris was removed, the official river height instantaneously jumped up 20 cm or so.

The old Pont d'Alma was replaced a while back, but the statues of the zouaves were retained, so news radio in Paris could report that the water was at the zouaves' knees.
ALTERNATIVEOur underwater telephone was officially an AN/UQC device, usually called "the UQC" by Americans or "Gertrude" by the British. It heterodyned an audio signal onto an 8.087 kHz audio carrier for transmission through the water, upper sideband. Once, on an operation off Gibraltar, I was not getting any response to my voice transmissions on the UQC, so I switched it to continuous wave mode and used Morse Code. Hilarity ensued.

ALTERNATIVEOn 21 March 1960 a sequence of three explosions was detonated in the Indian Ocean near Perth, at 19:10, 19:15, and 19:25 GMT. Each detonation used 300 pounds of explosive. The sound of the explosions arrived at a recording station in the North Atlantic near Bermuda 3 hours 43 minutes later. Perth and Bermuda are antipodes. The explosions were heard halfway around the world. This is Not the   Charlton  You're Looking For 

A tax firm sent me, Clifton Charlton, copies of my last five income tax returns. An employment firm sent me, Alan Charlton, a list of curtain walling vacancies ranging from London to Lancashire. I shop at The Compleat Angler in Bentleigh, Victoria, even though I appear to own my own bait and tackle shops in Launceston, Tasmania and in Redbank, Queensland. Diane Charlton sends email to herself. At least, she tries to, apparently. Charlton Collum has been offered a free lunch with his ski rental, but we all know that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

George Washington's Birthday
Birthday Calendar In Use Date On Calendar
0th Old Style February 11, 1731
19th Old Style February 11, 1750
20th Transitional February 11, 1752
21st New Style February 22, 1753
Atmospheric CO2 Things People Used to Know
On the left is a penknife. On the right is a jackknife.
ALTERNATIVEI remember three of the people in this 1898 family photo. The two-year-old towhead is my grandfather, Ocie Gantt. I called him Pop. He is sitting on the knee of his father, who I called Grampaw. In the back row is a kid I called Uncle Charlie.

If a woman has her hand on a man's shoulder, she is married to that man. Doc and Puss in the front row were married to each other, but it doesn't look like they were having a good day.

The bearded man was my great-great-great-grandfather.
San Francisco Skyline 1970
San Francisco Skyline, 1970. This appears to be a montage taken from the top of the east tower of the west suspension span of the Bay Bridge. The Transamerica Pyramid is still under construction. Sutro Tower does not exist. Mission Bay is a 300-acre quasi-abandoned industrial slum. A double-deck raised freeway dominates the Embarcadero.
ALTERNATIVEDad worked for the streetcar division of the Birmingham Electric Company. He is in the back row of this company photo from 1950, third from our left. It was a fine job, until the streetcar system was eliminated. A memory of the streetcars: The seatbacks had little sockets in them, so that a sign could be installed on any seatback. The sign marked the separation of the White and Colored sections of the streetcar. The same was true of the seatbacks on the buses. The sign could be moved from one row to another to accommodate different ratios of passenger loads. This is what happened to Rosa Parks. She sat down behind the sign, but soon afterward a white man got on the bus and couldn't find a seat, so the bus driver moved the sign from in front of Parks to behind her. When she refused to move, history was made. But that was three years in the future, and in Montgomery. When my sister Celia was about one year old we were riding on the streetcar in Birmingham (for free, of course) and Celia stuck her finger in one of the sockets in the seatback. She couldn't get her finger out. We had to stay on the streetcar until it returned to the car barn, where the mechanics were finally able to free her.

My first experience with the streetcars in the San Francisco Municipal Railway was in 1981. I boarded the Light Rail Vehicle (LRV) near UCSF after work one day. I was heading downtown for a night class. I was tired and hungry. I sat in a seat facing to the left. A new passenger boarded, and sat in the seat immediately beside me, where she could look into my left ear and see out my right ear. She was carrying a pizza box. Once the vehicle started moving, she opened the pizza box, pulled out a slice of hot pepperoni pie, and began feasting on it, in violation of the very strict rules.

She didn't offer me any.

Soon afterward another new passenger boarded and sat right in front of me, in a forward-facing seat where I could see in his right ear and out of his left ear. He was fidgety. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a handful of paper napkins with a logo from a fast food outlet, to blow his nose. He put everythiing back into the backpack. He fidgeted. He performed the backpack-napkin-nose ritual again. And again.

Then he went into the backpack one more time, but this time he pulled out an envelope. He pulled a single-edged old-fashioned razor blade out of the envelope. He used the blade to scoop some white powder out of the envelope. He held it up to his nose, and snorted the white powder off the sharp edge of the razor blade, on a crowded moving streetcar. He put everything away.

He didn't offer me any.

He then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his backpack. He shook out one cigarette and put it in his mouth. But he kept searching around in his backpack, and he got even shakier and more frantic. Finally he spoke for the first time, and asked the group at large, in violation of the very strict rules, 'Anybody got a match?'

That's when he discovered that he was invisible.

It was awesome.


Flu shot today
Paid retail
Not on my formulary
Clever, not smart
Autauga in the Middle
To the right is an excerpt from an official federal map showing the southernmost counties of Appalachia. My mother grew up in Elmore County (Appalachia), at least the fourth generation of her family to do so. But she moved to Autauga County (De-Categorized Zone) when she started teaching.
To the left is a map showing the Alabama Black Belt. The phrase refers to the color of the very fertile soil. My home town is marked with a green asterisk on each map. My father lived in Autaugaville, at least the third generation of his family to do so. You can see by comparing the two maps that Autauga County is the only thing keeping Appalachia and the Black Belt apart.
Many people say that they are from the middle of nowhere.
Some of us can prove it.
DESCRIPTION OF PICTURE When my drivers license expired in 1968, I was a student at Auburn University, and I couldn't just go to the Lee County courthouse in Opelika to get it renewed. That would have been too easy. It would have made too much sense. Alabama required that drivers licenses only be issued in the county where you maintained legal residence. Students were a lesser category of citizens who did not have the right to declare their own residency. The college made residency decisions on the students' behalf, in loco parentis. Colleges did not want students voting in local elections, so no way, Ida Mae.

Nevada and BeyondOnly in California
In 49 states, a highway milepost can be read at highway speeds. California's roadside markers are much more informative. This one, for example, is for US 101 in Humboldt County, 144.44 miles from the county line. Of course, you have now run off the road, since you tilted your head sideways to try to read the distance marker while driving 55 miles per hour. But you know precisely where you died.
California is Different

Auburn in the 1960s

footballFreshmen could not play on the varsity teams. (example: Pat Sullivan)

footballCollege football teams could be shown on TV only once a year. (Plus a bowl game if lucky.)

football The term “Iron Bowl” had not been adopted. We used other four-letter words.

football Aubie was just a reporter's pen-and-ink drawing, not an official mascot.

football Auburn’s home games against Tennessee, Georgia Tech, and Bama were played at Legion Field.

football Men wore sport coats and ties to games and bought corsages for their dates.

AUThis logo had not been adopted. A band member painted his bass drum like this, and it caught on.

basketball Any male student who brought a woman to The Barn for a basketball game got picked up by the crowd and passed above the other spectators by hand, all the way around the court. His date was untouched during his trip.

sundress Women were required to wear skirts or dresses at all times except when on the way to gym class, when they had to wear raincoats over their gym clothes.

football Undergraduate women had to live in campus dorms and had curfew every night. Men lived without rules.

flag Draft deferments were more important than parking spaces.

War Eagle!

The moon as seen from the north and south On the left we see a view of the moon as seen by an observer in the northern mid-latitudes. On the right we see a view of the moon as seen at the same time by an observer in the southern mid-latitudes.. Why the difference?

First, there is the difference in perspectives from two points on the earth that are separated by half of the earth's diameter.

Then there is the up/down flip because a person looking at the moon from the north sees the moon's north pole on top. A person in the south sees the moon's north pole on the bottom.

And then the left/right flip so the northerner sees the sunlit portion of the moon on the right on the night in question. The southerner sees the sunlit portion of the moon on the left.

It's the same moon at the same time.
The Barn was the varsity basketball arena at Auburn from 1948 until 
1968. The Barn was the varsity basketball arena at Auburn from 1948 until 1968. If a guy took a date to a game, the guy was often picked up and passed hand over hand around the stands, circumnavigating the court, and returned to his original seat beside his date, without ever touching the floor. The woman was not inconvenienced, however, because all women on campus had to wear skirts or dresses, and it would have been ungentlemanly for the crowd to manhandle her that way. I drove a Prius for five years, and one thing I was not happy about was that I had no way to monitor the coolant temperature. So I got a digital gauge that simply plugged into the On Board Diagnostic (OBDii) port under the dash. It worked fine. I left it hooked up full time, with the wire coiled up neatly and hidden. In fact, only the driver could see the gauge at all.

One thing I noticed is that on winter mornings, in stop-and-go city driving, with the 40-degree weather, the coolant temperature in my Prius fluctuated wildly. I'd pull up to a long traffic light with coolant at 184F/85C, and with the engine off the heater drew a lot of the heat off the block. In general I saw swings in the range of 155F/68C down to 117F/47C and back several times in my three-mile (5km) commute.

This is so very different from every other car that I've ever owned, which tended to maintain a constant coolant temperature regardless of the use of the cabin heater. And with no built-in gauge available, most Prius drivers probably just think that the heater isn't very good.
The mind reels at the amount of the world's information bandwidth that was used to transmit what was, in effect, two bits of data a day coming out of a chimney in the Vatican.

(Let's call this a zero.)

My first experience with the San Francisco Municipal Railway was in 1975 when I went out to catch the bus from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard to downtown. There were two buses waiting there. I made the correct assumption that the one in front would leave first. I got aboard and took a seat, but there appeared to be no driver.

After a few minutes, the driver suddenly jumped up from the very rear of the bus where I had not seen him sleeping. He ran to the driver's seat, started the engine, slammed the shifter into gear, tore off down the street, and shut the door, in that order. We took the city streets like an obstacle course, or like a skier in a giant slalom competition. He asked me, "Was there another bus in the slot behind me?" I told him that there was.

The driver asked where I wanted to get off, and I told him Mission Street. We then skipped every bus stop from the shipyard to Mission Street. We were going 50 mph in the left lane up 3rd Street, passing lots of people waiting at the bus stops.

As he stopped to let me off at Mission Street, he said, "I almost slept through quitting time!"
Nevada and BeyondOnly in California
In 49 states, this emergency sign starts by telling you what NOT to do.
In The Golden State, the sign has to start with directions on what TO do.
California is Different
In 1975 I was working as a hardware design engineer for The Four Boomerangs, and it was a hard time for engineers. The war in Vietnam was ending. The moon landings were history. The supersonic transport program was cancelled. There were few jobs. At one point we had so little to do at the office that I spent five months as a computer programmer working on a project for a Defense Department client.

All of us on the project, hundreds of us, civil servants, all the various contractors, everybody, shared the same userid and the same password.

One Monday I arrived at work to discover that nobody's programs worked, mine included. When I asked, I was told that Computer Sciences Corporation had transferred all of our files from their Houston data center to the one in Chicago. And while the interpreter in Houston had been rather Neapolitan in its attitude toward programming errors, the one in Chicago was more Teutonic. So a little debugging was in order.
When we were on vacation in Quebec last year, we noticed that the city of Montreal figured out an elegant way to recycle old cannon barrels.
Forty years ago a blacksmith at Mare Island Naval Shipyard gave me a working definition for the common phrase,

"Close enough for government work."

in Aldis lamp.
There are apparently a vast number of different ways to play mumbletypeg, but the version I learned required a jackknife.

Open the knife with the short blade straight out, and the long blade at right angles to the handle and the short blade. Lay the knife on the ground with the long blade straight up. Slip a finger under the end of the handle and flip the knife into the air. Points are scored if the knife lands with a blade stuck in the ground and the handle in the air.

Most other variations of mumbletypeg were much more dangerous.
This is the figurehead from an old sailing ship. This homage to the gods of the Greek pantheon is unidentified, but since she was mounted on the fo'c's'le, I've decided to name her Apostrophe, the Goddess of Elision.
Anybody can figure out what this handle does.

A very few of us know how it does it.
In 1998, when Hurricane Georges hit land, the mayor of New Orleans declared a 72-hour curfew. This trapped me in the Hyatt Regency with a view of the Superdome.

Since I live in San Francisco, normally I think of emergency preparedness in the context of earthquakes. Seeing the preparation for, and the results of, a powerful hurricane, was very educational.

The experience also helps me appreciate the motto of the local occasional underground newspaper.
  The Caucasian wingnut is the least endangered. 
Google has leaked the story of their stunning achievement in molecular technology, the eight-sided snowflake. (See illustration: Google Doodle from December 23, 2011.)

A Normal Mind

This note was on an old blueprint at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The handwriting in the last sentence does not quite match the rest of the note.
This is the fire hydrant on the corner near my house. If my house is ever saved from a fire, this will be the hydrant to thank.

This hydrant has two notable features. First, it has no freeze protection. That is rare in hydrants at this latitude. Plus, that knob at the top? Yes, that's to provide the firefighters with a place to tie their horses.
A couple of years ago we spotted this sign alongside Park Presidio Boulevard in San Francisco.
Nevada and BeyondOnly in California
In 49 states, an EXIT sign is red. This seems to work okay. California requires green EXIT signs for all new construction and remodeling. I hope this doesn't confuse anyone.
California is Different
This is a structural detail of the foundation of my late grandmother's house. The house has always been perched like this.

I must say, though, that the new owner's taste in paint is striking. Grandmama's house was never painted while she was alive.

Now that I live on the west coast, and am familiar with the building codes for seismic zone 4, I quiver to think of how many generations of my family perched on these piles of rocks.

I clicked on a Blogger page that was slow to load, so an animated graphic showed some gears turning. That's actually a good concept for such an image. But they took their potentially good idea and botched it. Let us count the ways in which the animated graphic fails to depict the reality of a physical gear set.
GoodThere are two pinions.
BadThe tooth count on the driver is not prime:
BadThe tooth count on the follower is not prime
WorseThe driver has an even number of teeth
WorseThe follower has an even number of teeth
Even WorseThe driver and the follower have the same number of teeth
CatastrophicThe two pinions have the same number of teeth, yet THEY HAVE DIFFERENT CIRCUMFERENCES.

Sorry. I'll shut up now. Please ignore the mechanical grinding noise in the background. It won't last long.