Monday, August 24, 2020

House of Cards

Spiral of Cards
“House of Cards”
Spiral of Cards

As soon as I saw the spiral begin to form, my thought was on labyrinths, which are distinct from mazes in that labyrinths have only one path to the goal, with no branching decision points. Perhaps I can work further on this spiral technique to make paths that fold back and forth, left- and right-wise, instead of spiraling in one direction only. The structural challenge will be making the wall begin to lean the other way as it turns the corner.

This reminds me of drawing mazes, another tabletop youthful pastime. As a kid I'd developed the technique of the double- and triple-spiral: three or four paths, folding themselves inward to a common meeting point in the middle, that then serves as a common branching node. A single-path spiral is merely a dead-end - once in the middle, you have to retrace your steps backwards to get out; whereas with a double- or triple-spiral you have a branching decision to make once in the middle.

I once drew a maze that was about 10 feet long, on sections of notebook paper taped together, using a blue Bic Cristal medium ballpoint. This was during the summer between 8th & 9th grade, when I was recuperating from surgery on a ruptured, infected appendix that came close to killing me. The maze was essentially a mass of double- and triple-spirals, connected together in a complex topology. I also figured out you could draw a very tightly-wound double spiral, one difficult to trace without the aid of a pointer or pen. Then, the adjoining paths in the spiral could be deadend together into a loop, that doesn't connect anywhere else; if you mistakenly crossed over the correct path into said no-man's land, you'd never find your way out without starting over. Devious, yes.

I carried that 10 foot long maze around campus in 9th grade as a scroll, a private badge of honor reminding me that, despite my surgery and recuperation being a handicap upon entering high school, my one advantage was obscurity: instead of competing with other students on an equal playing field, I invented my own playing field.

The thing about spirals and labyrinths - or houses - made from cards is the gaps between the panels, caused by the necessity to lean them one against the other, breaks the illusion of a solid structural wall. One is tempted to cross through a gap in a wall, to cheat a little bit. Hence the reason for groundrules to the game. The other option is to take a razor knife and perform surgery on your deck(s) of cards with interlocking slots, which makes them much more structurally solid but also removes any sense of challenge that is essential to the art of building a House of Cards, that being their difficulty in remaining upright against the forces of gravity and coefficients of friction. Like all engineering challenges, they are a balance between competing forces, that's why they're so fun.

Getting back to that spiral labyrinth of cards, a rigid central starting point is essential to success. But I can imagine you could alternatively start with a rigid external starting point instead, and wind your spiral inward to a cleanly defined ending card. Or, with enough cards, make that double- or triple-spiral, multiple card helixes winding themselves inward to a common central nodal point. But I'll leave that to you, the dear reader, to attempt. Unless I get around to it first.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Transmission from 57 Leonis

Strange things happen when you enter the Sandia Mountain wilderness east of Albuquerque.  Rumors have circulated for centuries amongst the indigenous, the Spanish, the anglo, and yet they remain.  Today we picnicked with friends, a celebration of my birthday, at our favorite spot, at about a 9000 foot altitude. Closer to the stars, they say.

I had just sat down at my typewriter, drink in hand, and was gifted with this seemingly extraterrestrial missive, hand-wrought, containing cryptic verse and imagery obviously intercepted by some mysterious radio receiver that watches our every move from outer space.

What is this mysterious symbol enclosing the transmission, a resin-like substance of some nonhuman origin perhaps? Dare I break the seal and glimpse what should remain unseen?

The message contained within started with this woodcut print, signed with the chop of Gustave Baumann, another longtime New Mexico resident. Mere decor, or a harbinger of more to come?

I was astounded by the origin story contained within. Almost as if my every moment were surveilled and recorded by something not of this world.

Details of the saga unfolded before me.

How could they have known?

My cover has been blown!

Are there still remnants to be uncovered?

A map back to my home planet perhaps?

It looks extraterrestrial to me!

At last the mystery was revealed, in all its typewritten glory:

If you see this man, be very cautious!


Thank you Kevin for the very creative card!

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Monday, August 03, 2020

Looking Up

Back to Space
It was sometime in the very early 1960s when Dad brought home these rocket banks. He worked out on Sandia Base, at a place called D.A.S.A. - Defense Atomic Support Agency, Field Command, Cataloging Department; later renamed D.N.A - Defense Nuclear Agency. He set up the system that catalogs the parts for the nation's "special weapons." Years later, sometime in the 1990s or early aughts, I met some of the ladies who still worked in his same department, they said the system he set up was still being used.

In the geography of the Cold War, Sandia was a place where the "physics packages," designed by Los Alamos and Livermore, were turned into practical, field-ready weapons, safe enough to be handled by soldiers and sailors with high school diplomas and rugged enough to withstand the abuse of deployment.

Dad was a meticulous documenter. He balanced his checkbook to the penny, using his clearly legible printing, which featured little details like horizontal serifs on the loops of the capital "J". I can imagine this worked well for the kind of career he had with that secretive government agency.

Parker Ballpoint

Dad always used these Parker ballpoint pens, with the brushed metal rear half and pastel colored plastic front. There was often one in his shirt pocket, or clipped to that checkbook that was always balanced to the penny. This one's mine, but I think he had one in this very same color. I don't use it that often - part of the problem of being a pen collector - but keep this one mainly because of Dad.

Bank of New Mexico had a branch office on the Base, which was where Dad got these rockets banks from. There's a vertical slot on the side of the bank, and a part above it that looks somewhat like the middle of a peace sign, inverted; or a crucifix with broken arms. There's a lot to unpack in these symbols; I'll leave that up to you.

A coin could be nestled into those broken crucifix arms, then the bank cocked by pulling the fixture down along the slot. When the button below the slot was pressed, it would shoot the coin up into the nosecone of the rocket - clank! - and the coin would rattle down into the bottom, preserved for that future college education. We loved watching the coins being shot into the bank much more than the idea of saving for our education. Go figure.

The base of the bank can be unlocked using a simple key, which we'd long ago lost, but a bent paper clip works well. I think my two brothers each still have their rocket banks. These weren't just fun toys for us to play with, but they also served as tokens representing the fact that we were very interested in the space program of the 1960s. I was born in '57, coming of age around the time of Apollo, and remember well our space infatuation.

My middle brother and I would play astronaut at Grandma's house. We'd set up the card table against the sofa. The card table was taller than the cushions of the sofa, so we'd lie on our backs under the table with our legs up on the sofa cushions, in that reclining position common to astronauts. We'd enhance the effect by covering the table with a large blanket, enclosed as if in our tin capsule, then play with pretend control dials we'd taped to the underside of the table. We do a countdown, then one of us (usually me, because I was the younger) would stand outside the pretend capsule and rock the table back and forth while spewing rocket-like sounds and droplets of sputum, the latter unintentional but common to overly-energetic young lads.

Later, we realized our pretend capsule wasn't realistic enough, so my middle brother and I commenced to build our own capsule in our grandparent's back yard, using aged lumber from a pile out by the shed near the alley.

My grandparents former house at 112 Edith St. NE in Albuquerque, now a law office.

The pile of lumber, I only learned more recently, came from circa 1929, when Grandpa had leased the ranch land to some businessmen who made an Indianapolis-style dirt racetrack, with wooden bleachers and a tall wooden fence that surrounded the 160-acre property, located near where the corner of Central and Wyoming are now. When the Depression hit hard, the racetrack went bankrupt and left Grandpa with an abandoned property. He built a shack of wood to live in, and dismantled the wooden structures and sold them off to make spare cash. With the remnants of that lumber we - my middle brother and I - made a go-cart and space capsule, in the late 1960s. From Google Earth you can still see remnants of the south turn of the oval racetrack, now located on Base property, between the Officer's Club and the north fence line adjacent to the Wyoming Gate entrance. After WWII the government had annexed part of Grandpa's ranch land to expand Sandia Base.

The capsule we built resembled a Gemini-style conical shape, built on a circle of boards as a base, with the sides of the conical capsule made of boards leaned up together, teepee-style. More bits and bobs were used to decorate the inside of the capsule to our liking. We'd have launches during every weekend visit to our grandparents, where my brother would lie on his back in the capsule and I'd shake it while roaring and spewing forth my boyhood energy, imagining him soaring into the sky on a column of flame and smoke. Later on we'd try making our own rocket engines from wooden kitchen match heads, but they only were good for smoke bombs.

One summer evening before dark there were flashlights flickering up the alley behind the backyard, then police officers entered the yard and questioned the adults assembled therein, a family reunion of sorts. Had they seen the escaped convict they were searching for? Nobody saw the escaped convict, but the officers made sure to search inside Grandpa's shed, and the conical Gemini-style space capsule, just to be certain no one was hiding. Years later I'd imagine that escaped convict, hiding in the spaceship, ready to blast off from earth to some better place.

These are the kinds of memories that come flooding back when I watch notable space events, like this week's return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule from orbit. My oldest grandson doesn't seem much interested, not many kids his age seem to be. I suppose it's an artifact of my generation's era, whatever happens during one's formative years seems to make a lasting impression. If there's to be a permanent and expanding space program it's going to require a permanent fanbase of supporters who petition their congressional representative to allocate the funds. As it was, Apollo was cut short by the economic ravages of Vietnam and the Cold War. Maybe our choices are endless wars, or space exploration, but not both? Maybe. In the meantime, keep looking up.

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