The Engineer’s Itch

On Saturday I’ve got the Engineer’s Itch. You know, the itch to take apart something that is working perfectly well and try to improve it. To scratch it I added a second video card and a monitor to my computer.

All I had in my box-o-junk was an old video card and a crappy 15 inch monitor, but even with that a dual monitor desktop is absolutely awesome. It works really great with Photoshop – I can move all the annoying toolbars to the left screen. I also moved the mess of shortcuts, install files and folders with junk to the left. Now my main desktop is very clean and organized.

It’s great for having multiple browser windows open, doing some reading during long and annoying installs (you can have a non-resizable window on the first monitor and another one on the second). Ok, next step is to buy decent lcd monitors and setting them up like that. I don’t want to go back to a single monitor setup.

Moon Over The Paramount


The skyscraper with the globe on top is called the Paramount Building. The building has a mountain like shape and the little stars on the illuminated clock face look like the stars on Paramount Pictures logo:

That building used to have a kick ass movie theater on the ground floor, the kind described in my favorite sci-fi story of all time, Henry Kuttner’s “The Proud Robot”. Now it houses WWF store and NY Times offices. WWF undertook an amazingly complex project of rebuilding the original theater marquee:

Working with the New York City Landmark Commission was a prolonged challenge in replicating the historic sign. Purists on the Landmark Commissions often push for exact replications ­ right down to the materials involved. But Tobin & Parnes had ideas for bringing the epic sign into the 21st century using new materials and technologies.
The commission initially rejected the idea to use LED technology in 1996, but later approved the concept as more signs in the surrounding area started incorporating LEDs. “


Multimedia Signage Inc. in California manufactured the signage that boasts the highest resolution ever achieved. The LED pixels and cells have a .45 pitch. The highest resolution before this sign was created was .75 pitch.

In order to get TV quality resolution on these screens we needed to go with that .45 pitch, otherwise the resolution would only give you a clear image of someone from their shoulders to the top of their head,�? said Ms. Dibner. “Using the .45 pitch we can get almost the whole person in there.�?

But how do you use technology without distracting from the historical detail of the sign? It was something that many were not sure could be achieved using LED technology because the sign curved up and down. But the Landmark Commission demanded that the sign’s original curvature be replicated.

The solution: using very small diodes and arranging them to match the curve. The result: any image on the sign curves with the curvature of the marquee with no distortion, another requirement of the Landmark Commission.

I just love the topic of new technology meeting the old. But Landmark Commission people are nasty engineer hating snobs.

Can He Build It? Yes He Can!

Livejournal user gornev led me to a most excellent meme in his comment to my post about wooden NYC water tanks. You see, there is this humongous wooden skyscraper in the Russian city of Archangelsk.

I wanted to post about this since I saw the picture of that building (which became my desktop wallpaper), but it took some time to find more information and to find the time to write it up. The sources that I used provide somewhat conflicting information, but that’s mostly because the articles were written at different points during the construction.

First you’ve got to see it. The links keep failing, but this google search will lead you to at least some articles with pictures.

I’ve obtained permission from Nikolai Gernet aka nixette to use this recent picture:

Nikolai also has a nice collection of old examples of wooden buildings in Archangelsk.

So here’s what I was able to find out about the building and the builder. The builder and architect is Nikolai Sutyagin, an owner of a lumber yard and a small construction company. He was brought up by a single mother in a crappy communal flat. At 14 years old he was sent to a youth correctional facility for “hooliganism” (probably a fight). When he came back he started working as a construction worker to help support his mother and younger brother. Turned out that he was a pathological workaholic. His supervisor advised him to try his hand at “shabashing”. “Shabashing” was a free market anomaly in a planned socialistic society. Because of the shortage of productive workers in the land of fixed salaries jeopardized the completion of five year plans, collective farms and factories were allowed to hire freelancers and offer pay based on performance. This meant that a skilled workaholic such as Sutyagin could earn about 2000 rubles a month when a college educated engineer’s salary was 200 rubles. Teams of shabashniks were universally hated by collective farmers and factory workers (as well as all other salary men and women), but were tolerated.

When Perestroyka came about Sutyagin used his money to start a lumber and construction business which brought him a substantial fortune. Now he needed a suitable residence. At first he planned on building a huge two story wooden house. Wooden structures are limited by law to two stories for fire safety reasons. At first he built a refrigerator sized wooden mock up. He liked the scale, but didn’t like the proportion of the roof. He decided to elongate it to achieve a more pleasing proportion. Then he started building working with his team like in the old times, but using the timber from his own company. When he was about done with the roof, he decided to build it up a little higher so that he could see the White Sea from the very top. Even though his building has two stories, the roof spans 11 more (some articles estimate the structure to have 12 stories, others – 13 and even 15).

The government and his neighbors hated Sutyagin’s masterpiece. Fire hazard or not, it stands in the middle of a rather poor village, yet it’s higher than the tallest cement building in the city of Archangelsk itself. The city government ordered the structure to be torn down, but the order was never realized as far as I know. But Sutyagin was accused by one of his employees (who supposedly stole $30,000 from Sutyagin’s company) of beating him up and imprisoning him in a shed. True or not, Sutyagin got 4 years of prison. He was let out in 2 years. While he was away his company was looted like Baghdad after the war. Now he and his wife and daughter live in the unfinished skyscraper that he built.

Now, here are some of my thoughts. I am deeply disgusted by the messages on Russian bulletin boards. There are three most common attitudes there: mocking the unfinished structure as a glorified barn, lamenting about the “mysterious Russian Soul” and gloating about the fact that the builder was sent to jail presuming that the source of the money used to build the skyscraper is stealing. Most of the press coverage concentrates on the eccentricity of the builder rather than his genius, strength of will and work ethic.

Sutyagin’s skyscraper takes up a very special place in my heart, right next to the AIG building, the Flatiron (Fuller Building) and all my favorite skyscrapers, remaining, gone and those that were destined never to be built.

I’ve used a number of articles as sources, but they all went offline. You can use this google search to find new ones though.

All I Really Want for Christmas is a Memex

I am finishing up “Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing “. Next up are “The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal” and “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century”. I’ve read a good chunk of Ted Nelson’s “Literary Machines”. It’s difficult. Just like Nelson’s personality. I’ll write about all of that in a little while.

I can’t fricking believe how expensive “From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine” is. You know, overall, used books at Amazon got so expensive. I used to be able to find almost anything for a few bucks, but now people have snapped up all the cheap copies. The only advantage of buying used books there is that they will be shipped faster. This sucks. Where is Xanadu? Where is my Memex? Where is my flying car?

Speaking of expensive. I’ve finally broke down and purchased a Tablet PC. It’s an Acer TMC102Ti . I’ve got it for about $1700 at ecost.com, and it comes with a $100 rebate. I finally own a laptop! I’ll post a review soon.

Oral Picard on a Spiral Staircase or Otterby dAttabroth

I’ve started what I am hoping to be my last semester at Brooklyn College. I am taking a speech course and a database management course.

The speech course is taught by an professor from NYU who looks very much like Captain Picard. He repeats himself a lot, tells cheesy stories and does not like my comments. The syllabus says that we “will be graded on oral performance”. Yeah, huh. I guess if I don’t miss too many classes and don’t piss him off too badly I should pass. Oh, and the class starts at 9 AM on Sunday. And there are no places where I can get an espresso. Arrrgh.

The professor who teaches the second class annoys me in oh so many ways. First of all he always smiles. Literally, says every word with a smile. Secondly, he teaches by example rather than by explaining. In the speech class we talked about non-verbal communication, and the professor didn’t much like my comment about a test for engineering thinking , which goes like this: you ask a person to quickly define a spiral staircase.


A person who thinks like an engineer will explain verbally , for instance, that a spiral staircase is a staircase that was bent into a spiral. A non-engineering type will try to explain with gestures : “you know, it’s a staircase like [whistles and makes spiraling gestures]” or examples – “ya know – like that staicase at Bill’s house”

How did you do?

Well, instead of explaining, this database professor gives examples. And spends lots and lots of time writing example tables and data on the blackboard (when he could have just given everybody xeroxed examples from his notes).

His accent is pretty heavy. I’ll write phonetic spelling of some of his pronunciations, and you try to guess what it means:

“Otterby” – “order by “
“sIkkle” – “single “
“valU” – “value”
“noW” (this is a tricky one) – “NULL”
“dAttabroth” – “\date of birth”

That’s not too hard to get used to though.

One Ring To Bind Them All

After I lost $30 pounds on Atkins diet my wedding ring started to slip off my finger. Of course, I am not Frodo, and wearing it on a piece of string was not an option. I used to leave it on the dressing table a lot, and finally it disappeared. Who stole Precious is not clear, but Tilde the cat is a likely suspect. So my wedding band is hopelessly lost.

It was a titanium ring. It looked like this:

Interestingly enough, the company that makes these rings is located in Canada. I wonder if they were inspired by the Engineer’s Ring.

I have a somewhat unhealthy fascination with titanium. I love that metal. SR71 Blackbird planes, Akula class subs, and if you are a Star Wars geek, TIE fighters are made mostly of titanium. I own a titanium watch and eyeglasses frame. I used to have a titanium pda case, but I lost it too :( Titanium is almost indestructible, but easily lost.

Well, now I need to replace the ring. I am thinking of choosing a different, fancier design. Probably one of these.

I was also thinking about a more exotic material for the ring, like iridium, but nobody makes them.

By the way, titanium rings are machined out of a single block of titanium. You can’t really smelt titanium, so resizing the rings is out of the question. Imagine how much skill is needed to machine interlocking rings out of a single block:

Nobbin or Boffin? Scratching My Noggin.

“Microsoft MCSEs are bogus boffins, say Canadian engineers”.
I like the word “boffin”. I learned it from “Junkyard Wars” (which wacky Brits call “Scrapheap Challenge”). Heh heh. Boffin. At first I thought it was of those monsters from an old game “Digger”. But no, they were called Nobbin and Hobbin.

Kind of like Pacman ghosts are called Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde.

Oh yeah, did you know that Hoser engineers are really, really cool? They even have this special iron ring which they get in a so called Kipling Ceremony or The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. I can see how they can get pissed of at the E in MCSE.

Mmmm, nucular ..

The spirit of adventure is alive and well in me. Today instead of just eating my Atkins bar, I decided to nuke it in a microwave for 15 seconds. Well, it became much more edible!
Guess I was not the first one to figure this out.

Speaking about nucular. One of my favorite magazines, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, had a very funny article about mispronunciation of “nuclear”. Homer Simpson is not the only offender in this matter. Eisenhower , Reagan, Bush-I usually said something like “NOO-kyoo-lur”, “NU-kyuh-ler” or “NU-cu-lar”. Carter, in a class of his own, liked to reminisce about being a “nu-KEE-ar engineer” (I wonder, was he the only engineer among American presidents?)

One of my favorite FIDO origin lines from was “I put instant coffee in the microwave oven and almost went back in time.” I don’t advise it, even for time traveling :)