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‘Ain’t technology grand?!?’ is my intermittent series on appreciating the little things that technology does for life. In these posts I dwell on how things are cooler now than they were back when I didn’t have gray hair, mouths to feed, creaky knees, and a pill a day pharmaceutical habit.

Lasers were the weapon of choice when I was a kid. Space ships, guns, light sabers… they all used lasers, or so I assumed. The best use of a laser in fiction officially belongs to Real Genius though. There’s an extended scene where the merry band of nerds and misfits gets revenge on someone by placing a giant foil packet of corn in his house and then hacking a military fightersatellite to focus its laser on the house. The laser heats up the corn and before you can say ‘Yes I want butter!’ the house is full of popcorn.

The other day I was taking care of some business* at work and I realized that venerable go-to weapon of decades of sci-fi writers was actually watching me whizz**. The office men’s room had gotten the ultimate power-up, automatic flush toilets.

* By ‘taking care of some business’ I mean ‘peeing’.

** By ‘whizz’ I mean ‘peeing’.

Innocent laser sensor, or tool of Skynet?

Auto flush toilets aren’t that new, we’ve all been using them for years in airports along with their HATEFUL brethren, the automatic faucet. But I hadn’t really considered the amount of technology that goes into one. They actually use infra-red wavelength lasers to determine when somebody is in front of them so they know when to flush.

I did a little Googling before I started writing and discovered that auto-flush toilets are a bit of a controversy. Some think they aren’t green enough, and others just want to pre-flush or courtesy flush. Myself, I’m pro lasers-that-watch-us-pee (at least until the rise of Skynet). Being an engineer means spending your days around a LOT more men than women so our men’s room is heavily utilized, and a good majority of the clientele are apparently germ adverse. So it’s pretty common to see some yahoo flushing with his foot.*** An auto-flush means I don’t have to touch that handle after some shoe that also walked across the nasty men’s room floor has been all up on it.

*** I HATE foot flushers. I dream of finding a would-be stomper in a puddle on the men’s room floor because of a mid-flush loss of balance.

I have to admit, they are a problem for children too small to be seen by the sensor. I can’t blame a 3 year old for being a bit concerned when that huge flush goes off while they’re already swinging bare bottom in the breeze. A friend had trouble with her newly potty trained twins refusing to go in public restrooms because they were afraid of the flush. She ended up having to carry post-it notes in her purse and cover the sensor. It’s an untapped market that 3M Corp should look into.

So if you see those TDOT guys on the side of the road standing a little straighter now, you know the auto-flush toilet has made them healthier and happier. (Or if it’s me, then you’ll know I finally saw a stomper lose his balance.)

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Onced again saved by the harsh glow of the touch screen.

This is part 2 of The True Story (Only Slightly Exaggerated) About The Time Ice Fell From The Sky And Bashed My House, With Added Drama.  You can catch part 1 for the build-up or skip to part 3 for the pictures of the after effects if you prefer.

By this point we had realized we were going to be under the most intense part of the storm, so we gathered up all the pillows and blankets we could find and made a little nesting area in the interior hallway.  I was a little concerned they would be scared and upset, but they were energized by the change in routine and wouldn’t settle down until we gave them their Leap Pads (the hot new toy for Christmas 2011 don’t cha know).

I can’t really blame them for being excited, I was a bit antsy myself, torn between keeping an eye on the kids, watching the weather radar on TV, and looking out the back window toward the approaching storm.  I stood there for several minutes trying to take pictures of something, but it was nothing but boring old rain.  The hail started slow, but it picked up fast and by the time my camera phone was ready to go the chunks were getting so big I was starting to worry about the glass in the back door breaking in my face.  Not to mention the curious shorties who wanted to come over and see what was up.  So in the interests of being a good fatherly example I had to retreat to the safe zone with the rest of the family.

We sat there for several minutes listening to the wind howl in a way I’ve never heard it before.  The sound of the hail pounding on the windows and back of the house was so loud it drowned out the weather reports on the TV and the kids had to put their hands over their ears.  It was a unique experience for me.  I’ve never been in a storm so intense.  I tried to get a recording, but it didn’t quite turn out so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

So of course, as soon as the pounding slowed down I was out to see for myself.  Stay tuned for pictures of the aftermath in part 3.

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This is part 1 of The True Story (Only Slightly Exaggerated) About The Time Ice Fell From The Sky And Bashed My House, With Added Drama.  This is the build-up, you can skip ahead to part 2 for the climax of the storm or part 3 for the pictures of the aftermath if you prefer.

When the thermometer cracks 80° and it’s only March 2, you know there’s going to be trouble.  That’s what happened to Tennessee (among others).  The local news stations had been building it up for days, warning us that some really nasty weather was going to be sweeping through on Friday.  There would be a quick round of nasty storms in the morning, and more protracted dangerous period in the afternoon.  These days it pays to listen to those forecasts because tornados seem to be getting more and more common.  So let’s just say I was feeling a little high strung.

It started out simply enough, a nasty squall line went through in the early morning but once it got past it was a nice day.  For awhile there were nothing but the nice fluffy clouds in the sky.  If it weren’t for the brisk wind you could almost believe it was a nice warm day in June.  I was starting to relax a little even though I know 80° in early March was definitely not a good thing.   It started to get worrisome when my dad calls me from east TN to ask me to look at the radar over them because our early morning squall line had picked up speed.  His power was out and the police scanner was calling in tornado touch downs near them.  And then I saw this:

Image from WKRN Channel 2

I stole that graphic from Justin Bruce, the morning weather guy on Channel 2, but he got it from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.  That big red dot of ‘high risk’ right in the middle hadn’t been there the day before, and if Justin was to be believed, high risk is a rarely used classification.

At this point I was sold.  I decided to pack up and head out of the office at 1 PM (one of the few benefits of starting the work day at 6:30 AM…. you’re almost done by noon).  My co-workers who sleep in and work late told me later that downtown started emptying out by about 3 PM other than tourists and basketball fans.  I was feeling a little silly when I got home and it was still a nice June day out, but I still kept an eye on the radar.

A nasty strom finally started bearing down on us by mid-afternoon.  Dickson was hit first and a lot of damage reports were coming out of there.  We were watching Lisa Patton report on the storm on Channel 2 when suddenly she was being drowned out by lots of crashing and banging.  My first thought was some wise guy reporter must have taken a mic outside, but it was actually the sound of the hail beating down on the studio roof as Lisa dramatically told everyone in the WKRN building to get to the basement.

Stay tuned for part 2, wherein our house gets beat all to hell by large chunks of ice falling from the sky.

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Water towers and civic pride

After writing all the technical stuff about water towers I thought I’d do a post showing the creative side. After all, if you’re going to have that big billboard high in the air for everyone to see you might as well make it look good.

Before you look at the pictures, I highly recommend this article from the Onion about the water tower’s role in chronicling history.

Fish bowl tower in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Beach ball water tower in Lewisburg, Ohio.

Howdy y’all. In Florence, Kentucky. Even comes with a funny little story.

For a more creative flair… the world’s largest ketchup bottle in Collinsville, Illinois. It has its own fan club and annual festival too.

The Peachoid. A giant peach shaped tower in Gaffney, South Carolina. Has its own Wikipedia entry.

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This satellite photo was taken four days after the  capsizing of the cruise ship Costa Concordia on January 13 off the island of Giglio in Italy.  To give you an idea of scale, the ship is 1000 ft long and 116 ft wide.  I assume the white line visible between the ship and the coast is a containment boom placed to keep leaking fuel from washing up on shore and will probably surround the entire ship soon.   Experts estimate it will take 7-10 months to remove the wreck.   Local residents are concerned because tourism is a big deal on the island, but they’re getting a surge of people from mainland Italy coming over to see the wreck for themselves so perhaps it will equal out.

The image is provided by Digital Globe. (click image for bigger view)

I also found this approximate representation of the ship and sea bottom.

Source: Wikipedia

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