Jewish Christmas, 2012
Tuesday, December 25 2012
I lay in awake bed this morning before the sun had even risen, and the thoughts in my head were all about the solar hydronic loop and the air bubbles preventing proper circulation. Ideally, I thought, I'd close valves to limit the plumbing to just the out-of-boiler-room part of the loop and then I'd flush tap water through it until all the bubbles were gone. While this would be a bad thing to try in the winter time (since water might immediately freeze), I realized that I had the infrastructure in place to do the same thing using antifreeze. I've built a system to collect antifreeze from the pressure release valves and pump it back into the hydronic system as needed, and the pump involved is capable of raising the pressure of the antifreeze to 30psi, which is very nearly that of household water pressure. Usually the antifreeze is introduced into the hydronic system at only 15 psi, but what if I attached a hose from the antifreeze supply directly to the upward side of the solar loop and then just drained whatever came out of the downward side? I went downstairs and hooked up the hoses to achieve this vision, and within minutes I had a steady stream of antifreeze flowing through the loop. All the bubbles had been flushed. This worked so well that now I want to build a system allowing me to run such flushes as needed. It would be a lot easier than adding antifreeze to the top of the system (the way I usually solve this problem).
With the possible exception of when I was a tiny child (before my parents had created the necessary Christmas morning rules), this was the earliest I had ever gotten out of bed on a Christmas morning. As Christmases go, it was shaping up to be an unusually well-ornamented one; it was the first Christmas in years that came with an accumulation of snow, the first real snowfall of the season. There was just enough to provide decoration while not being enough to cause any difficulty on the roads.
After dealing with the basement hydronics issue, I puttered around in the laboratory for an hour or so, but then Gretchen got up (at what was, for her, a surprisingly early hour) because she was excited to give me my Christmas presents. These started out with the socks stuffed with nuts, candy, art supplies, a flask of Hennessy cognac, and various trinkets (a rechargeable robot LED flashlight with a crankable arm, a piece of metal with cutouts intended as a survival tool, and a headlamp of the sort we use to read by during power outages). This year there were actually three socks filled with loot, the fourth sock having been stuffed into the third along with other things. Additionally, Gretchen had bought me new flip flops and the piece de resistance, a Tandy Model 102 she'd won on Ebay. I shit you not.
The idea for buying me that particular piece of personal computer history dates to an episode of The Colbert Report wherein a Radio Shack Model 100 was briefly displayed as an ironic icon of handheld computation power. When Gretchen and I were watching that episode, I'd turned to her and said, "I would have died for that computer back in the day." And so now here it was. The Tandy Model 102 was released in 1986, the year I headed off for college, and in the intervening years this particular machine had yellowed considerably. But after I loaded in four fresh AA batteries and flipped the switch, it power up immediately. I quickly discovered that some of its keys (particularly the S, N, 1, and 4 keys) were fairly unresponsive, but with a little exercise they started to come back to life. It didn't take long to write a program to plot sine curves and then another to dump the entire memory space to the screen. It had been a long time since I'd worked on a computer so slow; indeed, the rate at which the BASIC interpreter could place stuff on the screen wasn't all that much faster than what a fast typist could type. Still, a computer so old and primitive might actually have some uses even in modern times. The fact that it starts up immediately is a huge advantage, and its built-in LCD display, serial port, and Telcom program could be handy when monitoring the output of Arduino projects.
When I noticed that the Tandy Model 102 had an open socket for an 8 kilobyte RAM chip, I brought out my box of now-vintage integrated circuits (a collection I began assembling in the early 1980s) and quickly found such a chip. Before I'd even cleared the Christmas candy off the coffee table, I'd expanded my new computer's memory from 24K to 32K. I know those figures are ridiculous to the modern computer user, but back when I was a kid it would have been a huge advance. I should mention that the Tandy Model 102 is held together with only four screws, nearly all the electronics inside are through-hole off-the-shelf electronics, and there is no RF shielding whatsoever. It's a rare pleasure to behold something so (in its own way) perfect (and yet so compact) made entirely out of non-custom electronics. It represents a part of electronics history that sadly can never return. Back in those days, one could easily tinker with circuits because they were decidedly macroscopic. And all the components were well documented (even if it meant I had to travel to local universities to find the documentation; there was no World Wide Web back then).
I'd gotten Gretchen some bowls and containers from King Arthur Flour, though today I also gave her a goofy "union suit" for lounging around the house. This suit was manufactured by a company called Forever Lazy, was colored primary blue, and had all the zippers necessary to carry out basic bodily functions. I'd also gotten myself one, which I changed into soon after giving Gretchen hers. I would have worn it to our next destination today, but Gretchen insisted it was too informal.
This afternoon, Sarah the vegan came over and the three of us drove down to Ray and Nancy's place in Old Hurley for a Christmas lunch prepared by Ray. (They'd told us to leave our dogs at home, perhaps because doing otherwise would have meant five additional dogs would have been in attendance.) Also at Ray and Nancy's house were Nancy's parents, as well as Deborah and her latest boyfriend, Stephen. The meal Ray was preparing was largely Indian in nature, though the rice was more Japanese and the flavors were extremely bland (presumably so as not to alarm the old folks). We ate the food, drank some champagne-based beverages, and then opened presents, most of which consisted of the little tokens friends get for each other. Sarah had done most of her Christmas shopping at Trader Joes, whereas Ray and Nancy had bought most of their presents from Rich, a friends who does ceramic pottery in Woodstock.
Meanwhile, Suzy the dog spent most of her time on her bed, which now (due to her age-related incontinence) is covered with wee-wee pads. At some point Suzy started barking, and it sounded more like a series of clucks. Her baleful ear-splitting bark of only a couple years ago is as gone as the phase of computer history represented by the Tandy Model 102. Still, when someone gave Suzy a rawhide bone for Christmas, she was as interested in it as any dog would be, though all she seemed to be able to do to it was moisten it with her saliva. I hung out with her for awhile, knowing her time on Earth would not be much longer. She appreciated my company, looking into my eyes in a way I never remember her doing in the past. She's never struck me as a particularly intelligent dog, but today she seemed unexpectedly wise.
Our lunch ended up lasting until after dark. We returned home for only a token amount of downtime before the festivities of Jewish Christmas commenced.
Because we'd had such a late lingering lunch, Gretchen decided we should go directly to our Jewish Christmas movie and put the Chinese food off for later. As we were driving to the theatre, Gretchen noticed that the Chinese restaurant she'd been hoping for us to dine at (Kingston Wok, in the same plaza as Staples and the Burlington Coat Factory) was closed. Evidently it is owned by a particularly miserable subset of humanity, the Christian Chinese. (Why, after all, should a Chinese person be interested in the religion of a God who never said a word about their people or their part of the world?)
Out Jewish Christmas movie this year was Django Unchained, opening tonight. The theatre was almost completely full, a situation neither Gretchen nor I had ever seen at the Hudson Valley Mall's Regal multiplex. A full half hour's worth of trailers were shown before the feature film began rolling.
Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a slave revenge fantasy set in the context of a slave (Django) who, due to circumstances too complex to explain, ends up partnering with a German bounty hunter in the antibellum South. After making lots of money doing their bounty hunting, the two turn their attention to rescuing Django's wife from a particularly appalling plantation called Candyland. All the great Tarantino stuff is there, including the way way blood slops out of people as they are shot. The best thing about a Tanantino movie is the cinematic range. Django Unchained would be slapstick comedy one moment (a portrayal of the proto Ku Klux Klan) and disturbingly serious the next (an escaped slave being ripped to shreds by dogs). Everyone has an awareness of the curse slavery has placed on America (a curse that even in 2012 makes it that much harder to give tax hikes to millionaires, to pass real health care reform, or to control the sale of assault rifles), but it's easy to overlook the inherent violence and brutality of that cursed institution. But Tarantino rubs our noses in it to an extent I think is unprecedented in American media (except perhaps in Roots, which I haven't actually seen). It was such a damning portrayal that at one point Gretchen turned to me and said, "I can't believe there have been no reparations." We both loved and were affected by this movie in a way neither of us have loved or been affected by a movie in years.
Though it was a long movie, we still had yet to develop an appetite by the time it was over, so we bagged the other crucial ingredient of a Jewish Christmas: dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
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