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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Minnesota's Lost Forty - Land of the Big Pine

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes.  Go to visit one of those lakes and you will likely pass by some dairy farms with lovely green pastures.  But in an earlier era those lakes were surrounded by tall pines.  Stop at any of the small county museums or historical societies in the northern part of the state and you will find a lot pictures like this one.

Where are those huge pines now?  They became the lumber that built St. Louis, Chicago and, of course, the Twin Cities.  Wouldn't it be interesting to see what Minnesota looked like to the people who settled here in the late 1800s?  Most people will tell you the big trees are all gone, every one of them cut for lumber.  People with the last names of Musser, Walker, Weyerhaeuser and Pillsbury did do a pretty good job of clearing out every last tree in the state, but surprisingly, a few survived.

If you ever in northern Minnesota, make it a point to find the Lost Forty and visit it.  It is only about thirty miles from Blackduck.

If that doesn't locate it your mind, think three hours northwest of Duluth.  The Lost Forty is not widely known.  I've asked people that lived their whole lives in the northland about it and haven't yet found anyone outside of a DNR building that knows about it.  Here are directions from this U.S. Forest Service brochure:
From Blackduck,
take County Roads 30/13 to Alvwood, travel north on State Highway 46 for 1/2 mile to County Road 29. Follow 29 east for about 11 miles to Dora Lake and County Road 26.  Travel 2 miles north on 26 to Forest Road 2240. About 1 1/2 miles west of this intersection you will find a sign for the Lost Forty.
You'll know you are close when you see this sign:

The trees that the lumbermen came to harvest were the White Pines.  This is one of the best examples standing in this park.  It is estimated at around 300 years old.

If you aren't sure how to distinguish a White Pine from today's more common Red (also known as Norwegian) Pine, the Lost Forty displays one of each, side-by-side.
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Why are these trees still standing?  A survey crew made a mistake in 1882 and drew a map showing this forty acre area as being in the middle of a lake.  As a result, none of the lumber barrons bid on that forty acre tract.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Wisconsin, Center of the Political Universe

They just can't help themselves.  First, Wisconsin voters elected a governor and some new legislators in November of 2010.  Since that time they have seen part of the legislature leave the state.  Then there was the supreme court "chokehold" incident.  Then they mounted a recall campaign against some of the state legislators.  Finally, a million or so petition signers organized a recall campaign against the governor.  Did I mention protests at the State Capitol?

This past Tuesday, the recall primary produced a candidate to run against the governor.  Interestingly, with a million petition signers demanding the recall, only about 700,000 voters turned out to vote in the primary to select an opponent.

So who is running in the recall election scheduled for June 5?  The same two candidates that faced each other 18 months ago!  For an election lasting more than 18 months, see a doctor.

So the question is this.  Were the "Recall Walker" signs in northwestern Wisconsin just placeholders and will we now see them replaced with Tom Barrett signs?  Or will this continue to be a  battle of Walker versus the anti-Walker?  Here is the current roadside view of the  battlefield:
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Fortunately, the local geese and other wildlife don't give a squawk about the politics and carry on as if nothing were happening.  Life at the lake is very mellow.


Flying Home From San Francisco

Sunday afternoon I left SFO, heading back home to Minneapolis.  It was a beautiful day for flying and I got very lucky.  I had a window seat, a clean window and a sky with just the right amount of clouds to make it interesting.

I've never understood why a passenger would pull down their window shade and watch some Grade "C" movie when there is such scenery passing by as this.  We left SFO on the right-hand of the two South to North runways and then turned toward Oakland.  You can see San Francisco in the left photo (At the very left edge there is tiny image of a companion flight that departed on the left runway.) and downtown Oakland in the right one.  Click to enlarge.
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Crossing over those verdant hills east of Oakland we passed the runways of Travis Air Force Base.
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Soon, Sacramento drifted into view.  It is interesting to see the muddy Sacramento River swallowing the blue American River at this time of year.

Just across Lake Tahoe, the shallow Washoe Lake beckons.

With that, the clouds began to pile up a little thicker.  About a half hour after Tahoe, this valley appeared through an opening.  It is probably close to the Nevada/Utah border but some reader will have to identify it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

California State Capitol - Sacramento

After visiting with ERMA in Concord, I was less than seventy miles from Sacramento and I still had close to an hour and a half before sunset.  Should I try for another State Capitol for my collection?  Yes.

As I pulled into Sacramento, the River Cats must have been scoring some runs as fireworks were shooting into the air above Raley Field.  I headed straight for the Capitol building.

The Capitol, fronting on 10th street is an imposing sight as the sun begins to set and the lights come on inside.

It is difficult to photograph because of the large number of trees in the capitol mall park.  I really like that head on picture but there is something to be said for one that includes an orange tree too.

That surrounding mall park is quite large and I got a good look at it a couple of days later when my homeward bound flight passed right over the city.
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The Capitol park has more religious symbols nearby than I expected.  Here is the famous sculpture of the Sisters of Mercy arriving in California.
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And, of course, Father Junipero Sera stands watch over the whole state.
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With my photo mission  complete, I called home for help choosing an interesting place to eat.  Linda Yelped me over to this excellent Thai restaurant on 12th.  I was glad it was now late because the place was filled and tables were just beginning to open up.

I left Sacramento at about 10:00 p.m. and it was a long drive back to Palo Alto.  On Friday night, it appears that just about everyone in California is trying to get to someplace else.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Concord, California - My Date With ERMA

I managed to get through Paul Morton's papers at Berkeley in the early afternoon.  That left me with just enough time to get over to Concord before Bank of America would close.

I was on my way to the Bank of America data processing center which houses one of the original ERMA check-processing computers.  This is a little known but very significant computer history exhibit.  Beginning in about 1950, Stanford Research Institute (SRI) took on a job for Bank of America to build a computer to handle check-processing.  SRI built a prototype for the bank.  Eventually, the Bank put out for bid the job of building production versions.  Remarkably, the job went to General Electric, who not only was not in the computer business but whose CEO, Ralph Cordiner, wanted to make sure didn't get into the computer business.  This obviously makes for an interesting story and you can read about it in this book, King of the Seven Dwarfs by Homer Oldfield.  As I write this post, there are six used copies of the book available used on Amazon at prices ranging from $124 to $753.  It is a good read!

Unfortunately, traffic was heavy heading to Concord, I missed the exit, and silly me, I kept looking for a building with a big Bank of America sign on it.

By the time that I pulled into the parking lot, it was about 5:30.  But I had longed for a look at ERMA for many years.  Maybe she would be visible through a window?  I was in luck.  The technology center runs multiple shifts and ERMA resides near the cafeteria in Building 2000.

ERMA shares the entry to the cafeteria with B of A bank founder, A. P. Giannini, a fitting tribute to her importance.  This picture shows the whole unit.

Most bankers are going to be interested in the check sorter and the discussion of magnetic ink characters at the bottom of all our checks.

You and I, of course, are more interested in the computer.

The man who spearheaded the effort on ERMA - and saw to it that those funny looking numbers on the bottom of all our checks got to be a standard was Al Zipf.  ERMA and I were standing in the Zipf building referenced in this NYT Al Zipf obituary.  (The sign pictured below was constructed when ERMA was exhibited in a different location.)

By the way, when SRI was building the prototype machine, they contracted with my favorite computer company, ElectroData, for memory drums and tape transports.  These were constructed in hush-hush fashion in rooms above the floor where the Datatron was being built in Pasadena.

I later discovered the reason I had trouble finding the B of A complex in Concord.  I guess I haven't been keeping up on the news.  This 2008 article notes BofA wanting to sell their four buildings in Concord for $200 a square foot.  This 2012 article says they were sold for $75 a square foot in 2011.  And this local blogger notes that the BofA sign was removed in March of this year.  If you want to see ERMA, you might want to hurry before she gets lost in the next move.

More on building ERMA can be found here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

University of California, Berkeley - 2012 and 1969

My next major stop after visiting the Computer Museum in Mountain View was Berkeley.  I was gathering some information about Electrical Engineering professor Paul Morton.  Morton managed to wrangle a grant from the Navy in 1948 and set about building the CALDIC (California Digital Computer.)

Morton had a remarkable group of E.E. students in the 1948-52 time frame including John Alrich and Jerry Foster who would be key players in the creation of ElectroData's Datatron down in Pasadena.  Other notable pupils were John Haanstra who would play a key role at IBM in the development of the 14xx line of computers, Al Hoagland who played a key role in the development of IBM disk technology and Doug Engelbart who invented the mouse that you are probably using to navigate this Web-page.  Morton must have been quite the teacher.

Berkeley has some very attractive areas on the campus.

The 307 foot tall Sather Clock Tower is a landmark, of course.  You can see the top of it on the right side of this picture.

As I was leaving campus, I couldn't help but notice that the campus police have a pretty tough-looking mobile command post.  

I didn't see any major threats to law and order.  This student group looked pretty peaceful.

I turned and took one last photo that captured the M. L. King Student Union.  It wasn't until I got home that I recalled I had several other shots in Sproul Plaza near the student union taken during my last visit to the campus in November of 1969.  Linda and I were honeymooning in the area and dropped in to see what was happening on this well-known campus.  I had just completed my army training and would soon to be en-route to Vietnam.

Fashions have changed a bit since 1969.

No one is collecting signatures on petitions to allow 18, 19 and 20 year-old to vote.  President Nixon brought that to pass

There was a police presence on the Berkeley campus in 1969.  Not quite as imposing as the current mobile command post, though.

But in looking at these pictures, I realized that while I was focused (literally) on random students, those campus cops appear to be hauling someone off to an undisclosed location.
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Computer History Museum - Mountain View, California

This is part 2 of my visit to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.  Part 1, featuring calculators and punched cards, can be found here.

The current exhibit at the museum is titled "Revolution" and covers a wide range of topics including early personal computers and even game systems.

I had a particular interest in the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC).  This is the computer memorialized on the marker on the Iowa State campus.  I photographed the marker a few months back for this post and Cliff Berry's boyhood home for this post.

The reconstructed ABC had been on the Iowa State campus but now resides here at the Mountain View museum.  Two key components are the memory drum and the adder circuits.  Both were remarkable original contributions to the state of the art in 1940.
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Another memory drum from the early 1950s was on display, this being one from St. Paul's ERA.  The museum displayed this with the drum and heads exposed, something I had never seen portrayed elsewhere. Notice the staggered heads.

And Williams tube memory!  Here are three samples including one from the SWAC (note that this one is on loan from Harry Huskey himself) and another that might be straight out of Freddie Williams lab in England.
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Speed and reliability killed those early memories off pretty quickly and magnetic core memory came to dominate the field in the 1960s.  These core memory exhibits come from Fabri-Tek.
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Never heard of Fabri-Tek?  Well lets go to the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Daily Telegram for March 24, 1962.  Fabri-Tek was preparing to open a new plant in Eau Claire in addition to expanding its main production facility in Amery, Wisconsin.  A couple of paragraphs from the article:
  ... The company has had a consistent record of growth each year and expects this to continue.  (Company president, Mike) Mickelson started Fabri-Tek just five years ago in the basement of his St. Paul home. His initial investment in equipment was $15.  Growth of the firm since then has been rapid.

 ... About 400 persons are employed in the three divisions with that figure to jump another 150 this year when the firm completes its move into the plant addition at Amery.

 ... MOST OF THE employees here, as they are in Amery will be housewives. The memory planes and stacks f o r computers are made up of thousands of tiny wires and are constructed by hand.
The museum has a Teletype Model 33 terminal along with one of those classy Anderson-Jacobson 300 baud modems in a wooden box.  (Note that the teletype was not running at that high of a speed - that was a 110 baud device!)  This was the "modern era" of timesharing from around 1968 when Pillsbury was in the timeshare service business with Pillsbury Call-A-Computer and crosstown rival, General Mills was manufacturing computers.  Ahhhh, those were the days.
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And of course, the museum presents a System 360 console.  (Model 30)  This was the machine that changed it all and got almost everyone onto the same page.

The 360 architecture dominated the industry from its announcement in April of 1964 through the next thirty years or more.  And that was in no small part because IBM developed machines that could string those memory cores as lower cost than the housewives in Amery.