Monday, December 30, 2013

Your Great Idea Could Be a Very Bad Idea In Practice (Or Yes, We Have Two Saunas)

I grew up in homes with a sauna. Houses with saunas are rather unusual in United States, but my father appreciated them and the houses my parents built in Los Angeles (1965) and Santa Monica (1976) included a sauna (the sauna in the Santa Monica house was also a convenient place for my older brother and I to set up a darkroom).

Three years ago my wife and I bought a vacation condo that included a sauna:

It's located in Glacier, WA, near the Mt. Baker ski area (currently the ski area with the best snow in Washington state). It was built in 1977 at Snowater Resort, and the sauna is part of 70's vibe the resort has. (We rent the condo to cover its expenses. If you're interested in renting, Mt. Baker Lodgings manages our rentals).

Two years ago, we bought a house in Seattle that happened to have a sauna:
No, we weren't looking for a house with a sauna (and I haven't seen another house with a sauna in Seattle), but the house we found and loved had one. So, now we have two saunas.

If you take a look at the above photo, you can see that the sauna's location is unusual. This is how the sauna is accessed:

The house was built over 100 hundred years ago, and the sauna was put in with a remodel about 25 years ago. The owner that did the remodel was an architectural engineer - and you can tell. He did a wonderful job with the remodel and it shows off his design skills well, especially the practical use of space.

At first, you may think the location of the sauna was an absolutely ingenious idea. You have this house with an unused attic space; why not put in a loft with a sauna?

Let me tell you, this was a bad idea. The post-sauna heat-induced relaxed and limber state has a tendency to disappear during the climb down, as you grip the ladder with sweaty hands, hoping you don't slip and end up sprawled in pain naked on the hard tile floor.

I have thought about how to convert the sauna into useful space. Back in my single days I owned a condo where I put in a loft; it was my office space, but it was also a great place to get away to relax and take a nap (and I really missed it after I moved). Alas, my great idea to repurpose the sauna just won't work. For privacy, the loft would need to be enclosed from the bathroom, and there's just nowhere to put in a ladder or stairs without an awkward setup that would ruin the efficient and aesthetic design of the remodel.

As the title of this post says, sometimes great ideas just don't work in real life. But you can still appreciate an idea even if it ends up being a failure.

I still think it's awesome we have a sauna in the attic, but it's just so impractical we don't use it (although kids think it's great for hide-and-seek).

Monday, December 23, 2013

For Those In Need of a Heavy Metal Christmas Carol

At this time of year, there are those that want their Christmas music a little more exciting than usual. Here is my friend Todd's Heavy Metal version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

Sunday, December 22, 2013

21 Years After My Band's "Hit" Song I Receive an Unexpected and Very Touching Fan Letter

In 1981, during my freshman year of college at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I lived in Donner House, and for a school with a well-known school of architecture is was (and still is) an unattractive building with cement block walls and clad in aluminum. I lived in Donner A-Level East, or DALE, as it we called it. Across from my room lived Mike the drug dealer and in the room next to me lived Dan who had a two foot tall stack of pornography in box beside his bed. But also that year living in DALE were John and Adolph, also freshmen, who became good friends of mine.

John, Adolph and I decided to form a band. John was a decent drummer (and played in real bands later), I had mediocre keyboard skills, and Adolph had non-existent musical skills. I would say we averaged below mediocre with our musical abilities.
We certainly could never perform live. Our whole goal was to write one song and record it. Being the 80's our choice of musical genre was New Wave. We called our band Point Mutations, which Adolph came up with after reading about point mutations in his biology textbook.

With John drumming, Adolph played the Casio VL-1 and I played my Casio MT-40:

One weekend we found an empty room in Margaret Morrison Hall and using a cassette recorder and a mixer that I built from a kit from PAiA Electronics, we recorded our one song, "My Baby was a Teenage Mercenary." It is a simple song. It is not a very good song. It's basically three notes played over and over with drums and somewhat juvenile and amusing lyrics.

And here is all of 2 minutes and 33 seconds of it:

As I said, it wasn't a very good song, nor performed very well. In fact, while recording it (which was hours of repeatedly playing it until we got it right) someone walked in the room, shut the window, made some disparaging comment that I don't recall, and left the room. One thing that's missing from the recording is our cheers as we finally managed to record the song in its entirety without screwing up.

I have zero recollection on how we came up with the title and lyrics, but with its New Waviness and mentions of Ronald Reagan, El Salvador, Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands, it certainly is a product of the 80s.

We did not record the vocals live. John happened to be a DJ at CMU's campus radio station WRCT, so we had access to the audio equipment in the studio, where John and Adolph added the vocals. (John has told me we recorded the vocals for our second song in the WRCT studio. For "Teenage Mercenary" we used the cassette recorder on his Realistic stereo.)

And John being a DJ at the station, put a tape cartridge of the song in the DJ booth. At first it would only get airplay during John's weekly show or when one of us would call the station and request it. But within a few weeks we'd be listening to WRCT and we'd hear our song without any of us requesting it. We were a hit - at least in the few square miles that could receive WRCT's minuscule 10 watt signal.

Now for the weird (and touching) part.

In 1993 I posted a message on the usenet newsgroup alt.angst which mentioned Point Mutations. Then, 10 years later in 2003 (and 21 years after recording the song), I get this email:

Hi Doug,

One day I typed the name of one of my favorite songs into Google, and got a
single match, containing this:

Our band, the Point Mutations had a three note New Wave hit
song on the CMU radio station called "My Baby Was a Teenage
Mercenary". The lyrics were incredibly stupid.

Yes the lyrics were incredibly stupid, but maybe that's why I liked it so
much - enough to have remembered the song 20 years later.

I'd love to hear it again. Do you still have a recording?

And who was that chick singing?


This was one of my few jaw-dropping experiences in my life. "Teenage Mercenary" is a favorite song of someone? It is essentially a novelty song, a creation of three 18-year-olds just trying to have fun during a very brief moment in our lives. On rare occasions I would dig it up out of my dusty collection of cassettes from college to amuse friends.

The answer to Steve's question, "And who was that chick singing?" was non-chick John singing in a high voice. The lyrics tell a story (if you can even say that), and we added "My baby" because we thought it made it funnier. In all the ridiculousness of lyrics we somehow managed to miss that the point of view in the song is someone singing about a boyfriend. In seems utterly obtuse of us that we didn't even consider it.

After making an MP3 of the song available, Steve followed up:


It was a pleasure to listen to these classics. Thanks for helping to make
this happen! Please send my thanks along to John. The world has regained a
lost treasure!

Yes, I always assumed that a girl sang, on account of the lyrics. So once I
formed a mental picture of the storyline, I never questioned it. Strangely
enough, that mental picture eventually developed an extension, where I
would find said girl and benevolently offer my services as 'boyfriend' on
account of her wayward and absent beau. But after listening just now, I
realize it was a guy.

I think this was one of the first things I ever heard on WRCT, which my
high-school friends and I would listen to using a special antenna cut to
the exact frequency, with reflectors and directors (on account of it being
a 10 Watt station and we were 35 miles outside of town), while we played
poker and/or drinking games.

I felt like this was MY war protest song, because, having just registered
for the draft in the Ronnie Ray-Gun years, the Vietnam-era stuff did not
apply and there (at that time) was not much out about this sort of thing,
apart from what The Clash wrote, and a few others. So maybe the lyrics
weren't so stupid after all.

Thanks again!


All I could say to that is, "Wow." Completely inadvertently with our silly song, we managed to create a protest anthem and a song with meaning for Steve (in the same league as the Clash!). Twenty-one years afterwards, this was as unexpected as can be, and satisfying as well.

Before writing this post, I hadn't read this email in ten years (I knew there was a good reason to keep my old email around) and I'm finding it tears me up a little. How often does one do something that moves and leaves a meaningful lasting impression for someone?

There are two things I take from this:

  • How a piece of art (and "Teenage Mercenary" is barely art) is interpreted is completely out of the hands of the creators. Things can have meaning beyond their creators' intentions.
  • What you create, no matter how small or inconsequential you think it is, can be important, meaningful, and affect others in ways you can't possibly imagine, and if you're lucky, you'll find out about it.

(A future post will be about Point Mutations second, and only other song.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I Develop a Roll of Film Left at My House in 1977

I previously mentioned a number of rolls of undeveloped 35mm film I found in my father's boxes of photos. My previous post shows one of the pictures that was taken in 1960 and developed 50 years later in 2010. One of the cartridges was bulk-loaded 35mm with a hand-written label:"Tri-X 1977". Bulk-loading film is when you have a huge roll of film that you load into your own 35mm cartridge. Tri-X was a popular Kodak black and white film and was a common film used by professional and amateur photographers who wanted to develop their own film.

I and my older brother had a darkroom setup at home in Santa Monica in the 70's and we did bulk-roll Tri-X, but this wasn't anything we had exposed as I didn't recognize cartridge type nor the handwriting on the label. So, I had the film exposed 33 years previously developed by Blue Moon Camera in Portland, OR.

The quality of the developed film wasn't high. The contrast was low and they had a crazing pattern, although in some ways the unexpected changes gave a certain aesthetic to the photos. You can find the complete set of photos here.

Most of the photos were of Japan, including a Buddhist monastery:

I've had no luck determining what temple this is.

But I was able to find out that some of the photos were taken in Kurashiki, Japan (discovered through this Ask Metafilter question). Here's the a bridge across a canal (the characters mean "Central Bridge"):

Here's the same bridge a building on Google Street View:

Here's another building on the canal in Kurashiki, and its Google Street View 30 years later:

There were also a few photos of the Santa Monica Pier and one of the front of our house in Santa Monica.

I still have no idea who took these photos. The photographer clearly had skill. The best guess I can make of how my father ended up with the roll of film was that the photographer was a friend or colleague of my father just returning from a trip to Japan, and during a visit to us in Santa Monica finished up the roll film and inadvertently left it at our house.

Perhaps these two photos can give a hint:

A friend of the photographer? Self-portraits? No one I've reached out to have been able to recognize this person.

I end this post with this curious and somewhat creepy image of a room in 1977:

It leaves me wondering: Where is this? What's in the picture frames? What's behind that door? It just adds to the mystery of this roll of film.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

How to find out where a picture was taken 50 years ago in 46 minutes

My father was a photographer throughout his life. I have boxes of thousands of slides of his going back from the late 1940s to the 1980s. There are slides of trips across the USA, slides from 1950s trips to Mexico and Europe, and later slides of family vacations in the 1960s and 1970s. Here are two of his photos:

These are photos of my mother taken in 1960. The car is Porsche 356 convertible that my father brought back to the US after a 1959 trip to Europe (before he met my mother). I have a memory of the car, hiding beneath the cover that snapped over the interior at door level, but left the driver's seat exposed for driving. As an impractical family car, my father sold it in 1965 or 1966 when I was two or three years old.

Why are there two separate near identical photos, one color and one black and white? I can only guess, but the color one had been developed not long after it was taken, and the black white roll was not developed until 2010, 50 years after the roll was exposed and 16 years after my father's death (more on the developing of 8 of my father's exposed film cartridges in a future post).

The question I had was, "Where was this picture taken?" It looked likely to be the Northern California coast, and the house in the picture seemed unique enough that someone might recognize it. So, I posted a question on the web site Metafilter. In 46 minutes I had my answer (Metafilter is a great web site - also note that first person to respond to my question was Metafilter user "asavage" - Adam Savage of the Mythbusters). 

Here's the Google Street View of the same location in Carmel, CA:

As you can see, the rock formations match the ones in the original photo. The house in the original photo can't be seen, but it's still there, hidden by a new house. The house is known as the "Butterfly House" and here's the Google Street View of it from further up the road facing the opposite way.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Travel Guides for Time Travelers to the 19th Century

About 20 years ago at a used bookshop in Seattle, for $10 I bought an 1859 tourist guide to New York City. The signature of the previous owners (from 1864 and 1950) were inside (click images for full-size view):

It includes a history of New York, the sights a tourist would want to see: government buildings, parks, churches (including reviews of the clergy), etc. Also, hotel and restaurant recommendations, and, of course, information about all the omnibus routes.

A number of these "Stranger's Guides" have been scanned and can be found on the Internet Archive.

The cover page for the London guide is quite entertaining:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Your own 3D Rotatable Cow!

I work at Tableau Software whose motto is “Tableau helps people see and understand their data.” But it can also be used artistically or even frivolously, such as the 3D rotatable cow I created (use the sliders or “<” and “>” icons to rotate the cow over the x, y and z axes):

How I created it:
  • I found a Wavefront OBJ file defining a wireframe of a cow from somewhere unremembered on the internet. Here’s a large collection of downloadable OBJ files. An OBJ file first lists the vertices of the object in 3D space, then a list of the each face of the object.
  • In Tableau, each edge of the object could be described as the endpoints of of a line, so Tableau needed as its source data an x, y, and z coordinate, and an edge name.
  • I wrote this Python script to convert an OBJ file into a CSV file that Tableau would be able to load. The script is at the end of this post.
  • From this Wikipedia page about the 3D Rotation Group I found the formulae to rotate an object around the x, y and z axis. In a Tableau calculated field, Here is how the x coordinate is changed by rotation on the y axis:
    [X:RotateZ] * cos( ([ThetaY] / 360) * 2 * PI() ) - [Z] * sin( ([ThetaY] / 360) * 2 * PI() )
  • If you download the workbook, it includes a rotatable dodecahedron on another tab. That one you can animate the rotation as there's a theta on the page shelf (as opposed to be a parameter). For the theta, for each row in the CSV file, I repeated the coordinate data with a different theta value at 5° intervals.
  • The previous mentioned Python script to convert an OBJ file to a CSV file suitable for Tableau: 
import sys

def print_line(vertex, edge):
    sys.stdout.write(('%s, %s, %s, "%d"\n') % (vertex[0], vertex[1], vertex[2], edge))

# Column names
print "X, Y, Z, Edge"

lineNum = 0
doneWithV = False
faces = []
vertices = [[]]

f = open(sys.argv[1])

for line in f:
    lineNum += 1
    line = line.rstrip('#')
    line = line.strip()
    if len(line) == 0:
    vals = line.split()
    if vals[0] == 'v':
        if doneWithV:
            print "V after F"
        if len(vals) != 4:
            print "Invalid line #", lineNum

    elif vals[0] == 'f':
        doneWithV = True

edge = 0
for face in faces:
    # Add the first vertex to the end of the list of vertices
    # so there is a line from the last to the first vertex.

    face += [face[0]] 

    for i in range(len(face) - 1):
        print_line(vertices[int(face[i])], edge)
        print_line(vertices[int(face[i + 1])], edge)
        edge += 1;