Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Heat Wave Hero Worship

We live in a time and place where we are constantly surrounded by the products of the collective genius of the past and present. We are dependent on the ingenuity of others from all places and ages for our comfort, our security, our very lives.

Don't believe me? Take a look around the room where you are currently sitting. Look at all of the things that surround you. Go ahead, do it. (While you are looking, I will have time to thank James Burke, from whom I pirated this thought experiment).

Now, what (if any) of these objects could you still have if you had to make them yourself from scratch? I venture to say not many.

Ingenuity, and the people who drive technological advances, make our lives longer, cheaper and more comfortable. You might ask, though, "at what cost do we have these artificial things, these commodities that we depend on and center our lives around?" That is a simple question of economics: is what you are giving up worth what you are getting? Think not just in terms of money because economics, at its core, is about value and money is just one component of this.

Of those proudcts of technology that surround you, which could you easily live without? Live without with difficulty? Absolutely not live without?

I suppose this answer will be different for different people. I, however, can point to one thing in particular that I consider essential to my mental and physical well-being and therefore (in some sense) my survival.

It is just such a piece of technology as mentioned above, and it was invented by a man who is near the top of my "greatest guy of all time list."

That man was one Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950) of Buffalo, New York.

His invention? The first mechanical electrically powered air conditioning unit.

Well, now, he didn't invent it from scratch; inventors rarely do this. He did, however, have the knowledge and skill to take a problem and, using this skill, design a practical solution that would go on to have profound effects on society.

First, a bit of history about the "moment of creation." Carrier, freshly out of Cornell University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, went to work for the Buffalo Forge Company of Buffalo New York in 1902. They put the young Carrier onto a problem for one of their clients, the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Printing Company of Brooklyn.

The problem was that the heat and humidity were so high in the plant that the ink and paper would not dry (this is a simplification of a much more complicated problem, but you get the idea). Carrier had quite a problem on his hands; fortunately, he had the tools to get to the bottom of it.

He reasoned that the machine to be built must bring the humidity down to acceptable levels for the industrial processes at hand. He studied weather records, humidity data and took measurements at the factory itself. Using this information, he designed a machine that would regulate the temperature of water flowing through refrigeration colis and then blow air across those coils. He also figured in a regluator for measuring and controlling the dew point, another key feature.

Voila. The ability to control indoor climate in hot conditions.

After this, it was up and away for Carrier. After WWI, and the divestiture of the Carrier Air Conditioning Company from Buffalo Forge, Carrier and a group of investors staked $32,600 (some $633,202 in 2006 dollars) to found the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915. This company went on to have such prestigious large clients as Madison Square Garden and the U.S. Capitol Building. By the 1920's, Carrier's company was engineering systems for home use, which would not become widespread until after WWII.

Another American institution is born. Hot outside? Turn the air on.

The wider effects of this invention are easy to follow. Regions of the country that were not practical for development before (think Arizona and Florida) were suddenly looking a lot better (well, certainly a lot cooler).

After WWII, and the accompanying clamor for more consumer goods, demand and production of room air conditioners soared from 30,000 units in 1946 to over one million in 1953. As ever with technology, what was once an expensive luxury for the home or a great expense for a busines became easily within reach of most average income people. Now, it has been estimated (I've heard both figures) that between 64% and 76% of low-income households have air conditioning (if you are interested, I could try to remember where I heard this spread from).

More close to home than that, I cannot picture life without air conditioning. I just can't see how I would survive. You think I'm kinda cranky now? Wait until I have spend hour after hour in a hot, still room then dare to ask me "hot enough for ya?"

This actually happened not too long ago. Last Memorial Day Weekend, my air conditioner died on that Friday and, because of the holiday, I was not able to get it looked at until that following Tuesday. I tried to manage, but by Sunday night, I was in my underwear eating chicken wings on my kitchen floor with my feet in the freezer (now, THERE'S a mental image that will stick with you for a while). I had to throw myself on the mercy of friends who were more fortunate than I.

I tell you, that was the most miserable I have been in years and I am thankful every morning that 1. my brand new Frigidaire is working just fine and 2. my landlord pays for the electrical, although I would gladly foot the bill to have a cool space...clean clothes be damned!

I know that there are killjoys who will say that "air conditioners are worse than nuclear waste for the environment" and "when people got air conditioners, they withdrew to their cool homes, killing any sense of community" and "people lived for centuries without it; why do we need it now?"

To the first objection, I say that I consider it a good enough trade off that I don't own a car (and haven't for six years). That's my contribution to the environment, so leave me alone to be comfortable in peace. To the second, I say that you may be trying to reconstruct something that never really existed and besides, if I want to associate with people in the neighborhood, I will invite them over (or vice versa) to recreate in electro-chilled splendor. To the third, I say that if you would have offered and explained this device to people in the past, you bet your (sweaty) ass that they would take it in a second.

So, here's to Willis Haviland Carrier, a real exemplar of the ingenous problem solver who made people's lives a little cooler...and that's worth the price of admission from my standpoint.

(Thanks to these sites for some of the historical information alluded to herein; check out this especially informative interactive timeline at the Carrier Corporation's website).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Imperial Russia, Or So They Thought

One of the true joys of being a TA is reading and sharing student essays with my colleagues. It was something that I was actually looking forward to, and my students did not disappoint.

Now, I must preface this with the fact that most of my students did a fine job and walked away (I think) with a better understanding of Imperial Russia and Europe after the Napoleonic Wars in general.

Some, however, while not completely missing the point, could have chosen the wording in their final exams with a little more care.

Why? They forget that I have to read sixty of the things and, apart from picking through their every scrawl, I will get sick of reading the same answers time and again. So, it pays to make it interesting but sometimes I am laughing with you and others, well...

So, without further ado, the best comments from my final exams this past semester:

NB: I have not mentioned any names just in case the perpetrators of this minor bit of comedy stumble across this Internet backwater...but what are the odds? (I say that now; later comes the suits for libel).

1. Nicholas II went to an oprah.

2. Economists hold countries together.

3. Russia needed a better economy, not that there was anything wrong with their current one.

4. The Crimean War had a different but similar effect on Russia.

5. It looked suspiciously like a democracy.

6. Official Nationality made it so people had to declare their official nationality.

7. The Russian government kept little problems little and created little boilers inside big ones. Only when the little ones burst did the big ones burst too.

Friday, June 22, 2007

I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide (Well, Not Really)

The three above maps, inspired by M. Gordon Jenks, represent some of my travels and exploits in this great land of ours.

When I put this information in map form, what surprised me the most was how parochial I really am. I don't get out as much as I should. Perhaps my utter hatred of driving has something to do with this (if it is longer than three hours, I'm flying).

I could get into a long discussion about "silences" in maps and how the color scheme impacts how we "see" cartographically, I won't. It's summer and I'm trying to keep the nerd shit to a minimum (a promise that I have no intention of keeping).
The Maps Explained
  1. The first map is a map of the states that I have visited. The states in teal represent states that I have lived in. The states in hunter green represent states that I have visited; I defined this by a state where I spent the night or at least a period of twenty-four continuous hours. The states in light green represent states that I have been to, but cannot really say that I saw much of. In the cases of North Carolina and New Jersey, I changed planes in airports there (Charlotte and Newark, respectively). In the cases of Nebraska and West Virginia, I merely drove through them.
  2. The second map is a "beer map," showing states who's fermented malt products I have enjoyed (though not necessarily in the state of their origin).
  3. The third map is a map of the states where I, shall we say, have gotten "deep in my cups."

Further Afield

I have also visited three foreign countries:

  1. The Bahamas.
  2. France.
  3. United Kingdom (England, to be precise).

Of those I have had beer and gotten mullocked in two of them (France and the UK).


  1. Jenks beats me on states visited and beers-from-states; I beat him in "pie-eyed" states.
  2. I drink more than I travel.
  3. I already knew that I have too much time on my hands; this is bordering on certifiable. Luckily the state mental hospital is a short bus ride away.

Postscript: Extra Special Super Bonus Happy List

Before the bus to the booby hatch gets here, I figured I would extend the "fully krausened" list to a more local level; I also wanted a category where I might just blow everyone away. So I give you...

Chicago Suburbs and Neighborhoods Where I Have Been Overserved

  • Chicago -This includes the neighborhoods/areas of the Loop, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville, Lakeview, Rush/Division, Rogers Park, Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Bridgeview, Pilsen, Beverly, Mt. Greenwood, Morgan Park, Wicker Park.
  • Oak Lawn
  • Oak Forest
  • Tinley Park
  • Orland Park
  • Bridgeview
  • Calumet City
  • Steger
  • Midlothian
  • Crestwood
  • Shorewood
  • Joliet
  • Mokena
  • Schaumburg
  • New Lenox
  • Barrington
  • Markham
  • Harvey
  • Lansing
  • Evergreen Park
  • Lemont
  • Calumet Park
  • Blue Island
  • Palatine
  • Wheaton
  • Homewood
  • Chicago Heights
  • Park Forest
  • Itasca
  • Alsip
  • Hinsdale
  • Burr Ridge
  • Hammond (IN)
  • Highland (IN)

So take that, good judgement, common sense and concern for general digestive and mental health.

Friends don't let friends drink and map.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Oops, Forgot One

Thanks again for the questions. I realize that I forgot one good one, so...

  • Frema - I assume you are talking about the case of Frieda Birnbaum of Saddle River, NJ (the sixty year-old woman who gave birth last month). Medically, I guess that everything turned out all right; it seems that the age at which it is "safe" to have children just keeps on increasing (although the age to which women stay fertile may not). Essentially, it was her choice to do so and I am sure she understood the implications of such a decision (or one would hope). A bit of simple math (that I am sure we all did in our heads) leads to the conclusion that, if Ms. Birnbaum lives to the average age for a woman in the U.S., she will be lucky to see her children turn twenty-two. If she's O.K. with it, so am I.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Faith and Begorrah!

This was not at all surprising...

Your Inner European is Irish!
Sprited and boisterous!You drink everyone under the table.

As Long As There Are No Follow-Up Questions

You (or at least those of you who responded) gave me some good questions and I hope below to give some good answers. These are the short versions of my answers; if you would like me to "show my work," I would be glad to (I get the feeling that Greg might want to see this).

So, here goes...
  • Greg - Taking into consideration the non-aggression axiom central to libertarianism, the view of the state as either non-existent (Murray Rothbard) or as the "night watchman" (most notably Robert Nozick), and also bearing in mind John Locke's notion of children as potential free-actors and the notion (which Locke refuted) that parents have the right of life and death over their children and that fathers have absolute authority (a la Sir Robert Filmer), I believe that the state (at the long end) has the right to prevent this sort of aggression against children though they have not yet gained full access to their natural rights and (at the short end) the state may not be able to intervene, but they should have the right to punish parents who, in effect, murder their children.
  • Erika - I think that Hugo Chavez is one of the latest graduates of the Fidel Castro Institute of How To Piss Off the United States (famous graduates include Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmhadinejad and Saddam Hussein). Domestically, he seems to be following the same bankrupt state socialism that was disproven (finally) almost twenty years ago now. He does things, naturally, calculated for effect and because he knows he has something that we use and obsess over. I suspect he is long near-month oil futures on the NYMEX and does something "shocking" when he wants the price to pop. He, I suspect, is the least of our concerns at present.
  • Lost A Sock - The words "driveway" and "parkway," after a quick perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary, come from the late 19th century. The "park" in "parkway" seems to refer to the idea that it is an urban "green space" not the fact that a vehicle may alight there. The terms "cargo" and "shipment" are seventeenth century and retain their meaning from that era though the mode of transport has changed. We do this a lot with terms: in the UK, for example, what we would call a "divided highway" is still refered to as a "carriageway."

As I said, if you want me to expand on my answers, I would be glad to do so.