Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Montrose Flood

The area where is live is laced with an extensive system of concrete culverts designed to channel rain water. Shown here is the Verdugo Wash. These culverts lead to the Los Angeles River, which is partially restored but mostly a concrete culvert as well, and then to the ocean.

Up above, at the base of the 5000 foot high steep wall of the San Gabriels sit huge boulder fields with concrete dams designed to trap the boulders that are washed down from the mountains in a heavy rain. Around our house the earth is a sandy loam with dozens of grey rocks of various sizes embedded in it. All of this is evidence of the thousands of years of periodic floods that were the harsh, natural environment of this area that lies in a valley just above the LA basin.

I was reminded of this history by an article this morning in the Los Angeles Times about the Great Montrose Flood of 1934. About a dozen people died when a wall of water, mud, and boulders came crashing down out of Pickens Canyon on New Year's Eve. It's hard to imagine the violence that such a flood would have represented. The San Gabriels are steep and rocky, and the kinetic energy represented by the flow of water and earth must have been staggering. Sometimes we sneer at our concrete "washes" in LA - they seem like such a crude substitute for the natural arroyos that existed before - but another way to look at them is as a triumph of civil engineering that lets human beings live safely in a harsh environment.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

From Melting Pot to Pizza

One of the things I love about LA is the way cultures are mixed together in unexpected ways. Los Angeles is a city of mashups! This pizza spot I saw near downtown last night summarizes it rather well. Unlike a melting pot, where everything is merged into one undifferentiated goo, people come from all over the world and then maintain their identities. Of course that's true over most of the USA today, but it's in front of you constantly in Los Angeles.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Morning on the 405

This is pretty much how I've been spending my week...

Sunday, January 11, 2009


IMG 1695
Originally uploaded by robotbrainz
I love songs that can evoke a place, whether it's a place I know or one that exists just in the mind of the songwriter. Two that come to mind immediately for me are Waterloo Sunset and Strawberry Fields.

One of the things I like so much about the band Fountains of Wayne is that their songs are specific - real people, real places. They have names like Julie and Stacey and Michael, and they live in places like Brooklyn and they shop at Costco and at... Fountains of Wayne, on Route 46 in Wayne, NJ.

Their latest album, Traffic and Weather, is really wonderful - and at the moment, my favorite song is "I-95":

They sell posters of girls washing cars
And unicorns and stars
And Guns N' Roses album covers
They've got most of the Barney DVDs
Coffee mugs and tees
That say Virginia Is For Lovers
But it's not
Round here it's just for truckers who forgot
To fill up on gasoline
Back up near Aberdeen

It's a nine hour drive
From me to you
South on 1-95
And I'll do it 'til the day that I die If I need to
Just to see you
Just to see you

I spent many years doing that drive 2 or 3 times a month, from New Brunswick, New Jersey to Durham, North Carolina (and a few years before, from Falls Church, Virginia to New Brunswick). The words and the sound of the song put me right back there on the highway, stopping for gas at the big truck stop in Aberdeen with the giant sign you can see two miles away as you rise and fall over the rolling hills of Maryland.

(Thanks to Robotbrainz for using a Creative Commons copyright for the photo above.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Differential Engine In Operation

The Amazing Differential Engine

I've always been fascinated by the story of Charles Babbage, who had a passionate interest in applying the tools of the industrial age to building machines that could solve problems. He completed the design for a super calculating machine, the Differential Engine, and he worked (along with Lady Ada Lovelace) on the design for the Analytic Engine, which anticipated the modern digital computer.

In his lifetime he ran through some large grants from the British Crown attempting to build the Differential Engine, but was never able to complete a working prototype. In the 1980's a curator at the London Science Museum discovered the original plans and embarked upon a project to build a Differential Engine. While modern manufacturing techniques were used, it was built to tolerances that would have been attainable in the mid-Nineteenth Century. The working machine was displayed in London starting in 1991 and I got to see it in 1992. It's a beautiful creation of gleaming bronze and steel and a remarkable intellectual and manufacturing feat.

I had no idea when we made plans to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View that they now have the SECOND Differential Engine model, and furthermore they demonstrate it in operation. And even better, they have completed Babbage's vision by including a printer/typesetter - the purpose of the machine was to typeset tables of mathematical results that could be used to print books and eliminate human error. The machine was commissioned by Nathan Myhrvold ex-Microsoft guru, and fortunately he agreed to show it off at the museum for a year. If you're anywhere near Mountain View between now and April, come by and take a look - and be sure to stick around to watch them operate the machine. It's a beautiful thing.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Did You Feel It?

I was sitting at home this evening when I heard a creaking sound coming from the ceiling fan, noticed a slight vibration, and though, "oh, an earthquake". If you've lived in Southern California a while you tend to note these quakes which are either very small or very far away or both, and then move on without much thought.

The USGS has a WONDERFUL site,, that gives you all the data you could want about every earthquake, so later on I took a look. A 4.5 magnitude out near San Bernardino - enough to make you a bit nervous if you were close by but not likely to do any real damage. I'm about 80 or 90 miles away. On the site, there's a link - "Did You Feel It?" - you click on it and it collects your location and then asks you about your perception of the quake.

So how many geeky people (like me) do you think would go to this site for a small earthquake, click on "Did You Feel It?" and then complete the survey? So far, over 3,400 from all over Southern California. What a fabulous way to collect data about the perceived intensity of an earthquake, the range of perceptions, and the patterns of intensity in the area around the quake. I imagine someone at USGS proposing the idea and being told, "why bother, nobody would do that!" For a moderately large quake they get many tens of thousands of responses. (Of course, when the big one comes, the Internet's going down!)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Keeping the Gorillas out of Manhattan

Just north of San Francisco in the Marin Highlands, some of the most beautiful terrain in the world, lies the only restored Nike Base. The Nike rockets were set up in the 50's as surface-to-air missile sights to try to "vaporize" incoming formations of Soviet bombers. The Nikes could carry tactical nuclear warheads of 40 kilotons. I'm not sure I understand why you need a nuclear warhead to take out jets, except that you'd get a bigger margin of error, but I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The missiles were guided by a ground-based analog computer system that used radar to track the incoming bombers and the missile and would adjust its path to try to put them in the same place at the same time. It's hard to imagine you could make that work but the guys who have restored this base, and who worked at Nike sights in the fifties, sixties, and seventies claim that in tests the missiles were remarkably accurate.

There were about 300 bases but the Fort Barry site is the only one that's been restored as a museum. The Nike site vets who work as volunteer guides are pretty proud and passionate about the technology and they've obviously spent 1000's of hours in volunteer labor, restoring lift elevators and launch systems.

One of them explained the purpose of the program to me:
It was all about deterrence. It's like the guy standing on a street corner in Manhattan waving his arms around, and someone asks him what he's doing, and he says "Keeping the gorillas away", and the other guy says "there aren't any gorillas around here" and the crazy guy says "see - it's working!"

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the Cold War.