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Men guiding logs down a river in Michigan in 1901

Hat-tip to [livejournal.com profile] bookly for finding this NPR slide show (with optional accompanying audio) of jobs most of us probably didn't know had ever existed.

I did a bit of a double-take when I saw the picture above. Partly because as a kid I heard stories from men who'd done that work, riding rafts of logs down rivers to Puget Sound, where they'd be bound into bigger rafts and towed to mills. (Trucks killed that work — not because they were more efficient (they weren't) but because they were a whole lot less fatal.)

But also because I once did a similar (though less dangerous) job. One summer in college I got a job as a longshoreman in Olympia, Washington. Japanese timber transporters would tie up at the dock, and rafts of floating logs (each raft a logging truck's load, held together by a big manilla rope around either end) would be gathered around the ship1 and held in place with a log boom (which you can think of as a giant chain, consisting of logs joined end-to-end by short lengths of galvanized steel chain).

My job was to put on a pair of cork boots, walk out onto that floating former forest, and stand on one end of a log raft, with another guy on the other end, underneath the boom of a crane. The crane would lower a steel cable to each of us, and we would pass the cable under our end of the raft, and connect the end of the cable back to an eye on the crane's boom, which would by then be just overhead. Then, as the crane operator raised the boom enough to take up tension on the cable, my job was, to quote my boss, "to get the hell off that raft," and well out from underneath where it was about to be.

Aside from having a few tons of timber land on your head, the occupational hazards included, of course, falling in. But far more dangerous was the risk that the logs in a raft would shift and you wouldn't be quick enough to keep your footing. Falling such that when the raft settled, some part of you was trapped between logs, while probably not fatal, would not exactly be a good time either.

So as I said, similar to river driving, but less dangerous. The bay was calm and sheltered, and the rafts were just floating there, not jostling each-other in the rush downstream, so they'd had had plenty of time to settle. And the crane operators were old hands, and made sure nobody was under the path of a raft in the air. So accidents were generally rare. Aside, that is, from falling in, which is how I ended my career as a longshoreman.

Not much to say about that, really. I was jumping from one raft to another and missed my footing. I went in feet first, got my hand to my face just too late to keep my glasses from being washed off, and popped back to the surface immediately, the life-jacket working just like it was supposed to. They paid me for the rest of the day, covered the cost of my glasses, and suggested I find other work. Thus, at 19, ended my career as a longshoreman.

1 I never saw, or don't recall, that part of the operation. The far side of the harbor, away from the docks, had been full of log booms my whole childhood; I assume one of the jobs of the little tugs I saw in the harbor was to tow them the few hundred feet across the bay and nudge them up against the ships.
xela: Photo of me (Default)
The museum and associated projects at Bletchley Park are in dire need of funding. Historic buildings are crumbling and need restoration. Despite its historical importance it receives no ongoing public funding and is urgently seeking donations. The iconic Victorian Mansion alone requires somewhere in the region of £1,000,000 for repairs and some of the symbolic Codebreaking Huts are in a desperate state of decay.
More at savebletchleypark.com

They're soliciting donations. If you live in the UK, they're also soliciting signatures for an e-petition to Downing Street to get government funding.

It would be a shame to see this important part of geek history fall into ruin.

¹ Yes, that URL caused me to consider the possibility that it's a scam targeted at geeks. The donation link takes you to bletchleypark.org.uk, which has been in DNS for ten years and is registered to Bletchley Park Trust Limited. So if it's a geek-targed scam, they're thorough and have a long planning horizon.
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I helped an MIT undergrad I know get free admission to USENIX next week in exchange for working a few shifts in the terminal room. Today she asked me "what's the terminal room?"

I remember the first time I saw a VDT. It was a Tektronix graphics terminal, a vector display with about an 8-inch diameter screen on a four-foot long tube. It was in a special locked room of its own, off to one side of the main terminal room full of teletypes, and it cost about what my parents' house did. I, an eighth-grader who'd been given an account on the local college's time-sharing system because that's the way the world was then, wasn't allowed to use it. But I got to stand over a real programmer's shoulder and watch it, the beam darting around the screen leaving phosphor trail geometric shapes. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

One generation's marvel, another's antique. That's progress, and it's what every engineer strives to make happen. But it's good to reflect occasionally on the marvels of the past, to note just how marvelous they really are, in their original conception.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, there was an interview published in one of the New York papers with a woman on Long Island ... they asked her what her response to all this excitement was, and she said it was very interesting, but it was nothing compared to the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.
—David McCullough, in Ken Burns' Brooklyn Bridge


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