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April 4th, 2017

Best Happy Hour Ever!

Here’s what I did during Happy Hour last Friday…

jwst_visit

How was Yours?

(I’m the guy in the orange Mountain Parka on the right…)

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Best Happy Hour Ever!

September 16th, 2016

In This Wonderful Age of Social Media, Why I Blog

This graph I saw just now on Facebook says it all.  Mostly.

what-i-think

Why I blog.

  • I don’t get interrupted in the middle of answering a question or explaining something.

  • I don’t get told to make it brief. I can make it as long or as short as I feel it needs to be.
  • I can think about what I want to say, write it out, and then tweak it until I’m satisfied with it.
  • I can put it out there and not have to worry about what people actually understand; because some will and some won’t but either way I got it out there and I’m happy with it. (This also applies to my artwork and photography)
  • People who think I’m over verbose or don’t like what I have to say don’t have to read my blog. Unlike how Facebook and Twitter decide what you will see in your newsfeed or tweet stream, you actually have to go visit my website to read my blog. It’s an active not a passive activity. So if my words are not to your liking then you can completely ignore my blog and be welcome. There are cats and Willy Wonka memes out there you probably haven’t seen yet.
  • It gives me a record of my life and thoughts I can look back on to better understand where I’ve been and where I am now.

 

Another reason I blog: It’s taken me decades to claw my way out of the shell I left Jr. High School in due to bullying, plus that closet those of us who were growing up gay in the late 60s and early 70s inevitably shut ourselves into. And while I’m still not the free and cheerful kid I once was I’m better at just being Me now than I’ve been since I was a teenager. But some days when it feels like I’m being shoved back into that cocoon again for various professional and personal reasons, I know I can always turn to my blog, and my artwork, and get it out one way or another. This is how some of us, who’ve never found our significant other, computer nerds mostly I reckon, cope with trying to be understood.

I’ve said here before, this is a life blog. That’s something blogs just were before they became a media for political expression. Nowadays there are probably as many blogs out there as reasons people blog. Facebook, Twitter and other social media have cut into what was for a while a vibrant blog culture based around blogrolls and readers, but for those of us who have a need to get it out there in our own voices blogging is still an ongoing thing. Just recently a writer I follow, Jim Wright, had a post he put up on Facebook taken off after some unknown jackasses complained about it. The post in question was a heartfelt and angry reflection on the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, so you can see why it might not have been to everyone’s liking. But Wright is a thoroughly decent man, a retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer and he knows how to make himself clear even to nitwits. Eventually Facebook put it back up and apologized, but you could always read it on his personal website, Stonekettle Station. This is why it’s a good thing blogs are still out here.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on In This Wonderful Age of Social Media, Why I Blog

September 11th, 2016

Small Measures of Success

small_measures_of_success

My signature, same as I put on my artwork, has been sent into space three times…so there’s that…

63 tonight as I write this, at 4:40am.  It’s been a life. Struggle, disappointment, wonder. Cars, cameras and the open road. Love, and heartbreak. Amazing good luck…

 

 

spacesig

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Small Measures of Success

August 17th, 2016

Oh Microsoft…How I Love Your Pretty Little Lies…

Mostly, I do business software. That may seem surprising since I work for the Space Telescope Science Institute and we not only operate Hubble for NASA but we’re also working on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the project I’m deeply involved in at the moment. So you might think the work I do here is all sciencey and stuff and it mostly is, but not in the flight engineering sense of it. I do business software, and science like everything else has to account for its money and time. So as it turns out, a lot of my work still revolves around Microsoft products, and doing traditional business client-database applications.  The other day I was tweaking something I’d done in Excel VBA (Visual Basic for Applications…a product Microsoft hasn’t upgraded in decades, probably because there is so much legacy stuff out there in their business user base). It was your basic fetch some data from a backend database server and feed it to Excel and let Excel make tables and charts out of it for management to ponder. And I needed to do something that I figured I could use a custom document property for. Which I could, but not exactly in the way Microsoft’s documentation said I could.

You run into this phenomena quickly in this trade:  The Documentation Lies. Or more charitably, it is out of date. The documentation is buggy. The documentation is written by people who write software and hate writing documentation. If religious fundamentalists had to actually use passages in the bible like we software developers have to use the documentation and example code snippets we’re provided with maybe they’d stop waving that thing at everyone, and try a little figuring things out for themselves like we’re always doing…desperately at times. Oh you’re worried about the second coming are you? Let me show you my project’s Gantt chart…

See…I hate using Magic Numbers…

In programming, a “magic number” is a value that should be given a symbolic name, but was instead slipped into the code as a literal, usually in more than one place.

It makes the code hard to understand, which makes it hard to maintain. This is something a programmer is wise to avoid, even if it’s code you are nearly certain only you will be maintaining. Time passes, the universe expands, and you open a code file you haven’t touched in years to make a small change and you’ve forgotten what ThisWorkSheet.CustomProperties.Item(1).Value referred to.  Better to write it ThisWorkSheet.CustomProperties.Item(“GetsGraph”).Value. And lo and behold the documentation says I can call that property with either a numeric value (the property index) or a string value (the property name). But it does not actually work that way.

Let it be said Microsoft is hardly the only culprit here. My first experience with this sort of thing happened right at the starting gate of my career as a software developer many many moons ago, when I was a youngster doing volunteer work for a gay BBS system (before the Internet Tubes came along) and I was asked to write a system for a local gay activists organization to generate welcome letters and membership funding letters and mailouts and so forth. They had a licensed copy of Ashton-Tate’s dBase IV which back then was the powerhouse database system for PCs. It was working my way through the dBase documentation while trying out their code snippets I had the displeasure of finding out that computer documentation will lie though its teeth at you and laugh at your pain and suffering. In those days I hurled many a programming book across the room. Nowadays I glance at the time and do a quick rough calculation of how many minutes until Happy Hour. 

So I got through my little difficulty the other day by creating a sensibly named numeric constant that I can pass in lieu of actually passing the value of the name of the custom property whose value I want to check. That’s what we call in the business a kludge, because I’m not certain the property I want will have that index value Every Time. I think it’s likely since I’m the only one maintaining this code, for now, and I only have that one custom property in there. But what happens when someone else gets into this code? Okay…I’ve commented my useage of the property. But maybe the next update to Excel changes the starting index from 1 to 0? Surprise! 

Oh well. So I get things working to a close approximation of my satisfaction. Then I sit back and I ponder the Five Stages of Software Development…

Denial: Oh I probably just forgot to close a parenthesis somewhere.

Anger: Oh F*ck Me…that is a COMPLETELY LEGAL FUNCTION CALL!!!

Bargaining: Maybe if I use single quotes instead of double quotes…

Depression: I should have gone to art school…

Acceptance: My software tools are buggy, the vendor is shady, the next upgrade cycle will probably depreciate my entire code base, but the bar at Rocket To Venus is open late.

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Oh Microsoft…How I Love Your Pretty Little Lies…

March 22nd, 2016

Left Brain, Right Brain, Silicon Brain…

Browsing through my local network folders I stumbled on some old BBS message files and an associated log file that made me realize I had written my own NNTP client way, Way back in the day. I had completely forgotten this. So I went looking through my old source code tree for the source. It was a program I’d named TRILOBYTE. Back then I was into naming my programs after obscure critters.

I finally found it and looked over the code to see if it jogged any memories. It’s kinda disturbing I didn’t remember this one At All. But there it was. It was a riff off something I’d written in another modem program’s scripting language that basically just logged onto a service, downloaded all the new messages on the boards I was interested in, uploaded any replies I’d previously placed in an upload folder, and then logged off.

I’d written it in VB1 it seems, but I think looking at the main source file I had a DOS version I’d worked on first. It contains my first ever state machine code to process the NNTP transactions. I know it worked because I have folders with USENET news articles in them this thing downloaded, and reply files it successfully uploaded according to the log files. Writing my own NNTP state machine, with nothing more than the protocol documentation to guide me, was actually a pretty big accomplishment for back then. I’m a little concerned now that it completely dropped out of my memory.

I can still recall coding my first PIM software (I called it “Beetle”)…and “Owl”, which was going to be my own weird client/server take on BBS-ing. I’d developed an entire system based around the concept of a message board warehouse where instead of logging on and reading and writing online you would run a program that quickly connected, downloaded all your new messages and email, upload your replies, and then disconnected. You would then read and write offline. It was a solution for the days when long distance phone charges were high and most amateur BBSs were single line and if someone was hogging the line nobody else got in. I figured if I could create a BBS system that reduced connection time to a bare minimum it would make connecting to out of state, maybe even out of country BBSs cost effective and feasible. The Internet pretty much wiped all that away by the time I finished developing my new system. So it never really got much past the early prototype stage. Such is life.

I’d completely forgotten I wrote Trilobyte. And it had some pretty nifty code in it too. Some of it probably came from the client part of Owl. There’s the Twit filters and Scud Topic filters which were things I’d implemented in LOGMOP, a PDS Basic program I’d written to clean my BBS message file downloads of flame wars and idiots.  It was lost to the grey matter, but there in the silicon. I wonder if this is some sort of new evolutionary path we’re all going down now…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Left Brain, Right Brain, Silicon Brain…

March 13th, 2016

At The Range

This is a part of me I know some folks may find disturbing, but so be it. I like to shoot guns. I have a few of my own. It’s not like I have an arsenal or anything, just a few handguns and rifles. It’s never been that big an interest with me that I spend tons of money on it, and it was more a thing when I was a younger man who couldn’t get enough of things that go bang. And that’s really the essence of it with me, and I suspect, with a bunch of us. It’s not about Dirty Harry fantasizing or anything like it. It’s about another elemental part of the human psyche. Fire.

Fire. I was the kid who turned off the lights in his bedroom, threw open the blinds and raptly watched every thunder and lightning storm that passed by. The louder and closer the bangs the better. It drove mom crazy. But I knew as so long as I watched from safely inside it was okay. I was that teenage boy at the quarter mile racetrack watching the fuelers blast down to the finish line in a glory of fire and smoke. Nighttime races were the best because you could see the fire coming out of their pipes as they idled at the starting line, and then leaping into the sky as they raced down track. I was the kid who smuggled in out of state firecrackers and set them gleefully off on the fourth while my friends kept an eye out for approaching adults. I was the one who built and carefully tended the camp fires at the end of a day’s backpacking, or in the fireplace of our winter break ski shack, then watched it raptly through the night.

But I’m a geek child, not a psycho. And the geek dives into their interest with an intensity of spirit that, yes I know, can be off putting to others. But sometimes that’s exactly what is called for, especially if what lights your fire, is fire. You learn the nature of the fires you wield, and how to keep yourself and the people around you safe. I don’t want anyone getting hurt. I don’t want to get hurt. It’s no fun if anyone gets hurt. Those people who, they say, go to races hoping to see a crash mystify and appall me. What I want to see is mastery of excessively powerful engines and Newtonian forces. I want to see them surfing the fire. Likewise, I am disgusted by nearly everything I hear nowadays from the so-called gun lobby. By now I suppose a lot of people who enjoy this sport are. We’re not all Ted Nugent.

I recently got a membership at a local pistol range. At 62 I qualified for the geezer level discount which cut the cost of a year’s unlimited range time neatly in half. “Unlimited” in this context could be a tad misleading; time at the range is limited by the cost of ammo, and for one of the large caliber handguns I have, a Smith and Wesson model 25-5 (chambered for the old 45 Long Colt, cartridge. As I said, I like big bangs), it’s Very expensive. A box of 50 rounds cost me 40 bucks the other day. Another box of 50 45 ACP rounds cost 25. It’s a much more widely used cartridge. The Long Colt dates back to the black powder days. It’s the cartridge of the famous Single Action Army Colt of the old west…the one you always saw in the movies. There was actually a nicer 44 Smith and Wesson top break gun sold back then but it’s the Colt that’s the classic western movie gun.

So I had my Model 25-5 and my Colt Officer’s Model at the range this morning. And I’m writing this blog post now for the benefit of everyone who thinks all you gotta do with a gun is point and shoot. No. Just…no. You have to practice.  Bunches.  And to my shame I hadn’t.  Well…not with mine.

Visiting my brother in California, he’s taken me a bunch to ranges he’s a member at, and I’ve shot his guns there and was very pleased with myself at how good my aim was with them. But those weren’t my own guns, and it lulled me into thinking I was still good with my own, even though I hadn’t practiced much with them lately. This morning I took the Smith and the Officer’s Model to the range. I hadn’t shot either one of them in years. A friend of mine used to take me to his pistol range as a guest and back then I shot it and my other guns a bunch. But he got into skeet and I take more pleasure in shooting handguns. So I didn’t follow him into that. And for a long time my guns just sat, and got the occasional cleaning, inspecting and oiling.

So I load the Smith and take aim at a bulls eye target and half my shots initially miss completely. Eventually I figure I’m low and to the left and make some adjustments. The Smith has adjustable sights and I thought they were sighted in for me. Maybe five years ago they were. Not now. Eventually I’m putting most of my shots in the black and I move the target back some. But my groups are all over the place and I’m not happy with myself.

Then comes the Officer’s model. Every friggin shot from my first clip misses the target completely. Mind you, I’m shooting at a target only 15 feet away. Eventually I figure out I’m shooting low and to the left with this gun too and I make adjustments and finally get my shots mostly in the black again and I move the target back some. But I’m even worse with this gun than the revolver.

So I pay my bill and leave the range and in the back of my mind I’m thinking about all the morons I seem to be reading about every day now who shoot themselves or shoot someone else and it’s obvious they think a gun is just another adult toy like a fast car or sex and it’s all so Easy…you just point and shoot…just like John Wayne! No. Just…no. Jim Wright, a writer I follow on Facebook, has wisely said there are no gun accidents. He’s right. Drunk driving isn’t an accident either. You get yourself or others hurt by not following the rules. And treating guns like fetishes in a culture war (I’m using the word in its religious sense) practically guarantees people aren’t going to pay attention to what the gun actually is and that’s how people get hurt.

But I hadn’t been paying as much attention as I thought either. So I had my lesson for the day. If I’m going to keep these things in the house, I need to practice with them regularly. As I said, it’s about fire. The fun is in the mastery of fire. If I’m not going to maintain a level of mastery I might as well sell them and be done with it. Otherwise they’re just dangerous weapons sitting there in the gun safe slowly becoming even more dangerous if their owner can’t even hit what he’s aiming at. I have an alarm system. I have a shotgun. I don’t need more than that for home defense. 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on At The Range

September 26th, 2015

Back To Work…

Back working on A Coming Out Story, Episode 19. I know…I know…it’s taking me forever. But I’m getting motivation now from a certain someone down in southern climes.

I’d forgotten about how Heathkit builders knew you needed, in addition to a good soldering iron, solder, various wire snips, screwdrivers and such…a cupcake tray.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Back To Work…

August 12th, 2015

Wishing For A Lost Old Friend…

I have a story to tell about my life that I really should have told here before now. It’s about how a boy raised by a single working mother with very little household income and absolutely no hope of going to college, ended up working on the Hubble Space Telescope project and then the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

I got to thinking about it lately because I’ve begun a personal project at home to get a DOS virtual machine running. I wanted to be able to run some of my favorite old DOS programs again, XyWrite and PC-Outline, and archive and preserve some of my old DOS program and data files. It brought me back to a time when I was still just tinkering around with computers and had no idea what I was going to do for a living or what my future might hold, other than it would probably be as it had always been up to that point, just a series of low wage warehouse or service jobs. Mom had spent her entire working life as a low wage clerk for a company that processed ads in the Telephone directories, back when Ma Bell was a monopoly and you rented, not owned your telephone. I always figured my life would be pretty much the same as hers.  But it wasn’t.  And the story goes further back than those days I spent tinkering with the IBM PC compatible I’d built from parts I got at a HAM Radio Fest.

I should tell the whole thing here because looking back on it now amazes me, and I actually lived it. Here’s something I posted to my Facebook page reflecting on that first computer I built. I’ll just leave it here, with a few editorial tweaks, as prologue…

I’ve been wishing for years now that I hadn’t given away the first IBM PC compatible I built from parts. Yeah it was a parts machine, but it was my first hand built computer and I used the very best parts for it I could find at the time, and all in all in retrospect I’d actually designed a pretty good system.

It was based around an 8088 motherboard with the full 1.meg complement of memory (user memory was only 640k) and what was said to be the most compatible BIOS of the time. Just to make sure, I bought a shrink wrapped copy of IBM-PC DOS 3.1 just to verify that. If it would run PC DOS it was compatible enough for me.

I bought a “clamshell” PC case for it….

clamshell Case
This one is very similar to the one I bought,
though the innards of mine were a tad different
and I’m pretty sure I had the floppy drives on the left
side of the bay.

Clamshells weren’t FCC approved because they leaked radio emissions like crazy. If you ever run across an original IBM PC and wonder why it had that awkward metal sleeve over a metal frame construction, keeping it from leaking RF was partly why (also, back then IBM just over built everything because…IBM). I knew I would be constantly tweaking and improving the thing, and that case with its door opening like the hood of a car would make that easy. To the case I added a toggle switch, tucked under the front cover, to switch off the speaker. I was still living in the Rockville apartment with mom back then, and I didn’t want her disturbed while she was trying to sleep. The switch was for things that went beep in the night.

I didn’t have the money for a hard disk drive when I first built it. I bought two Teac 5 1/4 floppies which were then the best floppy drives made. Hard disks were hellaciously expensive then, but as it turned out, an expansion RAM disk card was affordable. I bought a two megabyte RAM expansion card, mostly for its speed. Then I would create floppy disks with batch files on them that copied my programs and their data to the RAM disk, and when finished, copied the data back from the RAM disk, and simultaneously to a backup disk I’d placed in drive B. Running things from the RAM drive made everything blazingly fast, even on an 8088, even off the hard drive I would later buy. Eventually I would add an external print spool device too, with a 250k RAM buffer that allowed programs to dump their print output quickly and give me back control. Most of you reading this will probably will never know the frustration of sending output to the printer and being unable to do Anything, even turn the PC off, until the printer was finished with your job. Ah…the bygone days of DOS…

Back then even the most expensive color cards and monitors were hard on the eyes when it came to displaying text. And I didn’t have the money anyway. So I opted out of color altogether and bought a Princeton Graphics amber screen MDA TTL text monitor, which was the sharpest text display on the market then, and the amber color of the text was easier on the eyes IMO than the standard green. I paired it with a Hercules Graphics Plus card, which was the best monochrome graphics card of the time. It had a very nice video graphics mode which alas never caught on, although early versions of Microsoft Word could utilize it and its user defined RAMFONTS mode.

My first computer was a Coleco Adam that only lasted a few days before I had to take it back because the printer stopped working. I bought a Commodore C64 afterward, and for several years the Commodore was my introduction to the computer world and what I could do in it. I wrote my first BASIC programs in Commodore PET Basic (which I would later learn was a variant of Microsoft Basic). I took my first tentative steps into the online world with it. Hooked it up to my shortwave radio and read the teletype traffic. But the Commodore was a closed system aimed mostly at game play and lightweight household tasks. The IBM PC was the real business computer. The Commodore was an 8 bit machine that came with 64k of RAM, of which maybe 40k was user RAM. The IBM was a 16 bit machine that had an entire megabyte of RAM, 640k of which was user RAM. 640k! 16 bit! I remember that first day after I got mine all put together and it ran and booted PD-DOS, sitting in my room on the edge of my bed, just looking at it, awed by what I’d just done. It felt so wonderful…and yet so scary…to have all that power at my command. Maybe this was how normal boys felt about finally getting that Mustang they always wanted. “That’s a real computer…” I kept thinking to myself. “What have I gotten myself into now…?”

Little did I know. Eventually I got a 20 meg hard disk for it. Eventually I got a copy of Microsoft PDS Basic, with the Jet database engine and learned to write business software on it. Eventually I got a 1400 baud modem for it, then a 2400 baud US Robotics and found my way to a gay community safely away from the bars where I could actually relate to anyone. Eventually I moved on to a hand built 386 tower with PC-DOS 5, then 6, and Windows, and Visual Basic. Eventually I got a job writing programs for Baltimore Gas and Electric, and then an apartment of my own and a new car. Eventually I got a job at the Space Telescope Science Institute and a house of my own.

I sure wish now I’d never given that first PC away after I moved on.

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Wishing For A Lost Old Friend…

May 5th, 2015

Everyone Needs A Hobby…

After three years tobacco free I am officially back to my cigar hobby. Because some days alcohol just isn’t enough, drugs are illegal, and it takes forever to come back down off a bullet to the brain. Yes…slowly killing yourself can be a hobby, you just need to take an geek like interest in the details.

In 1967 CBS ran a short lived comedy series called “He and She”. It was smart, witty, the main characters, a young couple in New York bantered with each other and the other characters in this very dry humor I just loved. I was attracted to it instantly and watched it religiously. So of course it was cancelled after just one season. There was a scene in the first episode, I forget the lead in to it, but the Dick Hollister character (a cartoonist!), played to perfection by Richard Benjamen was arguing with his wife Paula, played by Paula Prentiss, and she says to him exasperated “What are you’re saying!?” and Dick says “Never mind what I’m saying, just listen to me!”

Don’t you just hate conversations like that? Especially when it’s your manager and he keeps asking you what went wrong and every time you start telling him he interrupts and says he didn’t want to know that. “What went wrong?” “Well…A, B, C, D…” “I don’t want to know that…do you realize if we had done the entire operation manually we’d have been finished long before this?” “Well if I knew at the beginning what I know now…” “I don’t want to talk about that…”

He came down to my office and we went though the process. At least one of the problems I kept running into manifested itself for him. Some tasks fight you in a big way, but it’s the ones that fight you in every minute teensy little way possible that completely demoralize you. Either way, if my orders are to save the Kobayashi Maru don’t ask me why I’ve got a bat’leth sticking out of me afterward. Did you know that Klingons fight back? Surprised the hell out of me, let me tell you…

My attitude is this: why let stress kill you when can smoke a good cigar while death puts a scythe in your heart. Life is short. Never pass up an opportunity to enjoy something good.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Everyone Needs A Hobby…

January 12th, 2014

The Parka That Represented A Mindset

OhMyGod…Sierra Designs is (or was) making it’s original Mountain Parka!!! It’s on the kind of sale that looks like it’s a discontinued item (again) and some sizes for some colors are marked as not in stock. But you can get to them from the main page if you go to “Men’s Apparel -> 60/40 Heritage”. Or you can just do a Google search on them like I did just a few moments ago on a lark.  Or just click this link.

See…I’ve been wishfully thinking about that parka for decades. Decades. I had one way back when, but not understanding the concept fully I bought one that had a Thinsulate liner and really, it’s supposed to be a shell. The idea was if you needed to you wore something else under it like a sweater or a vest. Otherwise it made a good wind breaker for back country hiking.  But there was more to it.  Oddly enough, a piece of clothing can also represent something more than itself and the purpose it was made to.

Back when I was a kid a lot of outdoor stuff you saw was made the same way they’d been making outdoor equipment since almost the turn of the century…much it merely riffing off old army designs that even the army wasn’t using anymore. Nobody was really thinking about what the equipment was supposed to do. New materials were mindlessly used in old designs that had been originally made with canvas and trotted out as something new and great simply because the canvas had been replaced with nylon or some other synthetic fabric.

In the late 60s a few small companies in California began rethinking everything. One of them was Sierra Designs which began selling their Mountain Parka in 1968. It hit the outdoor market like a bombshell for its innovative design and over engineered construction (they used to guarantee their stitching for life). It quickly became a thing. If you’ve ever watched the original Carl Sagan “Cosmos” series, that parka he was wearing at various points in it was one. It was a very recognizable item because its design was so unique for its day, yet it made so much sense for its purpose.

Nowadays all this is old hat…but I remember the thrill of walking into a Hudson Bay Outfitters store in the 70s and seeing so many new ideas and designs for outdoor equipment (I was in my wilderness backpacking phase then) that looked so different and yet made so much sense. Because some people had started rethinking what that equipment was For, had begun to realize what new materials and new technologies could accomplish. And those people got other people to thinking too.  This was the same think outside the box mindset…you saw it mostly but not exclusively on the west coast…that would eventually yank the power of the computer out of the mainframe and put it on people’s desktops, and then into their hands.  It was this:

We keep moving forward opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. -Walt Disney.

After the stifling 50s, that was the future I thought was was walking into when I was a teenager.  Well…it wasn’t all that.  But in some ways it was.  And still is.

Time passes…the universe expands…my economic status declined rapidly after the Reagan recession and the Savings and Loan scandals wreaked the economy. I got rid of my Thinsulate lined parka when its fabric got hopelessly torn and I had no money for a new one but I figured I’d get one of the basic shells at some point. But the company changed hands, joined with other outdoor companies like Kelty and stopped making some of its classic products including the Mountain Parka. Every now and then I’d check the company web site to see if they’d re-introduced it but it was never there.

Last Christmas my brother bought me a really nice L.L. Bean down vest and I started thinking again about the Sierra Designs parka and just now I looked and it’s back!  So of course I bought one. I didn’t need one…I have some very good coats and parkas in the coat closet already. But sometimes you wear an item of clothing not for what it is entirely, but for what it represents.

sagan-cosmos-2

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Parka That Represented A Mindset

August 8th, 2013

Nap Dreams

Nap dreams are the weirdest ones.

I live on a dead end street.  There is an access road that goes to the alley behind my block of rowhouses, but on the maps and as far as the city is concerned Redfern Avenue ends a few feet from my front door.  But in my dreams it goes on forever.  I walk down it often, though sometimes I also drive.  Every car I have ever owned is parked on the gravel shoulders, and every place I have ever lived, and every school I ever went to is somewhere further on.  Some nights I walk past them and keep going, just to see what’s there.  If you go far enough it is always different then the last time you walked there. Time is like that the further away you get from the world we live in while awake. Just before you reach the beginning of time (or the end, I can never tell), you pass the house of the oldest handyman in the world.

He lives in a little stucco house on the side of a hill. Inside against all the walls are all the tools that ever were, going back to the age of flint, and in the basement and the attic are every spare part that ever had a catalog number.  He greets you at the door with a friendly smile and you can’t help but smile back.  His face is aged and full of lines and his hair is white as snow. He wears overalls that were once green but now faded and gray.  His cap is wrinkled and worn because he often uses it as a handle, and the visor casts a shadow over his eyes, making them hard to look back into; but you never should because if you do you’ll wake up and forget your dream. There is a name patch sown on his shirt, but in my sleep I am illiterate and I can never read it.

He can rewire a 1948 GE toaster, make a 1953 Muntz TV work again by passing a small fork made of pure silver over its vacuum tubes until he finds the bad one. He can straighten a crooked door frame by shaking a carpenter square at it.  He can fix a Kaiser Manhattan’s seized inline six by tapping its spark plugs lightly with his fingers and humming a tune I can never recall when awake. Once he fixed a broken electrical transformer by calling down the lightning, and directing it through the winds with a magnet he keeps in his pocket.

In this dream I see my first car, a 1973 Ford Pinto, beside the road and decide I want to take a drive in it.  But as I get in I notice the paint on it is fading.  So I go back home and look online, only to discover that nobody sells that color anymore.  A boy always has a fondness for his first car, even if it was mean to him and refused to start sometimes because it was being cranky that day,  so I take a walk to see the Handyman.  He is there at the door waiting for me when I arrive, and he invites me inside.  I tell him about my car and scratches his chin and then pulls a straight edge razor with a white handle out of his pocket. He tells me to scrape the old sunlight off the hood of my car with it and bring it to him.  Paint he tells me, only shows color by trapping other colors out of the sunlight.  The reason paint fades he says, is because of all that trapped sunlight wanting to get back out.  If I could bring him all the color the paint had trapped, he could make me an exact match of the original factory color.  So I walk back to the Pinto and began to scrap the old sunlight off it.  It takes weeks.

Eventually I have a small bar of trapped sunlight, dirty orange in color and the consistency of wet clay.  I bring it to the Handyman and he puts it into a can of white paint. The paint he tells me, will free the sunlight, taking its color with it out of the white, leaving behind only the color my car was when it left the factory.  He pokes a finger into the paint and begins to stir it and it turns a bright blue, exactly like my car was before.

I stare into the blue and it gets brighter and brighter…and I wake up.

Nap dreams are the weirdest ones.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Nap Dreams

June 17th, 2013

Look…Up In The Sky…

I will probably not bother with the new Superman flick. I only watched one of the recent Batman movies because of Keith Ledger’s stunning Joker. Mark Hamill does an equally good voice characterization for the cartoon series (go find the YouTube where a fan asks Hamill to do his Joker saying that “Why so serious?” line and the crowd goes wild.)

It’s that Batman cartoon series that’s clarifying for me. It works because its setting is a Gotham City that stylistically could be both today and yesterday. That 1930s-ish styling makes it work and that’s because that’s the period that character emerged from in the comics. These characters, Superman, Batman, and so forth, belong in the timeframe they were created in. That is where they make the most sense. Notice how modern film makers (and comic book producers) struggle with updating their costumes. Those costumes reflected those of circus strongmen and trapeze artists, and were instantly recognizable and believable to the readers of that time. Nowadays they just seem…weird.

Instead of updating the old superheroes we should set their stories in the times they were born, and create new ones for our own. Were I to do a Superman series I would start with his being found by a childless couple in rural Smallville, sometime in the 1920s, when the information highway was the daily newspaper and the vacuum tube radio in the living room. You wouldn’t have to make him a god to make him believable as an awe inspiring figure in a world that didn’t know what we know about time and space. He was a child from a lost world raised on Earth to be one of us. But he was different, he could fly, he had x-ray vision, he could bend steel in his bare hands, bullets just bounced off him. That was amazing back then and I believe there are still lots of good stories, relevant stories, you could tell about that character without having to make him more than he was to fit into a 21st century he really does not belong to.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Look…Up In The Sky…

June 8th, 2013

Work Ethic

It’s Saturday Morning and I’m sitting in front of my home office computer working on a software project for my place of work because just as I was getting out of bed I thought of a code change I needed to implement. As I said to a friend recently, I don’t have a good work ethic, I have an obsessive compulsive disorder.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Work Ethic

February 24th, 2013

Adventures In Online Dating

Back in the BBS days, the 1990s, before the Internet was opened up to commercial use, I joined a small gay community BBS system and eventually became one of its volunteer support staff. It grew from a single line, single connection at a time system to a multi-line multi-user system, and with that, came the first chat channels I’d ever been exposed to. Gay chat channels.

But this was not a meat market sort of gay BBS…its sysop swore if it ever became that he’d pull the plug on it. He wanted it to be an information resource for the local gay community and to its final hours when the Internet finally killed the BBSs, that was what it was. Even so, you had to expect there would be lots of gay singles there, lonely hearts, mostly computer geeks, looking for something better than the bar scene. Or at least quicker.

I hated the bar scene…just never fit into it…and I joined that BBS specifically to meet people in what I hoped was a nicer environment, and hopefully find a boyfriend. So with the new “chat rooms” came new opportunities for private conversations with whoever else was logged in, and one day, I think I was reading my mail, I got a ping from another user on a different line to have a private chat. Sure, says I, and I entered chat mode.

He asks me if I live in the city. No says I, I live in the suburbs. He asks a few other things, I forget what now, and then he asks me, “What are you into?” So I reply that I like cartooning and photography, and writing software and I tell him about the work I did for that BBS, and the local newspapers I did photography for. I tell him about my work building architectural models and how it tweaked my skills as a draftsman and painter…after a while I noticed he wasn’t responding. Then I saw he’d logged off.

I sat there puzzling it over for a while, wondering if maybe he’d just been disconnected somehow. That happened a lot back in the dial-up modem days. But eventually I figured it out.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Adventures In Online Dating

September 16th, 2012

Adventures In Medium Format Photography…(continued)

I took a day trip to York, Pennsylvania yesterday to do a little test of the Hasselblad with the metering prism, diopter and focusing screen I bought for it, and two new black & white roll films I’d never worked with before; Fuji Neopan 100 and Agfa Retro 80. The Agfa is advertised has having almost H&W Control like qualities of grain and red spectrum response, but it develops so they say in HC-110. Since Kodak is not at all well these days, and they’ve stopped making Pan-X altogether, which is what I like using in my medium format cameras, I need another source of film.  So I am experimenting.

I haven’t developed the Agfa yet, but the Fuji is already stunning me. It’s emulsion backing is more transparent then the Kodak…to an H&W Control degree practically…so there will be more bandwidth in the resulting images.  Plus it lays absolutely flat on the scanner tray. I don’t need to fuss with it to get it to lay flat, it just does.  My shots with it in York are running though the scanner now.  I’ll see what kind of images I get later today.

But I am already delighted with what I see the metering prism doing for me.  All exposures are exactly on target with the new prism.  Much, Much better then I was able to get reliably get with the Gossen hand held.  My thing is I like shooting into the sun and that can be tricky.  I’ve developed the Fuji and the two additional rolls of Kodak Pan-X I took with me and glancing at the negatives as they came out of the wash everything was spot on.

And it’s faster to work with then I expected. Since there is no direct coupling between the meter and the lens, you have to transfer the reading you see in the meter to the lens manually. But the reading you get is in EVs (Exposure Values) and the Hasselblad lenses have EV settings on them that are a snap to use. Once you set the EV on the lens, the shutter speed and f-stop settings are latched together and you just rotate both depending on whether you want the highest speed or the greatest depth of field.

I am having zero problems now with focus.  The new focusing screen is both brighter and because it has that split-image focusing aid in the center, quicker to focus with.  Plus the diopter is a big, big help.  I can see everything snapping into focus now, whereas before I had to search it out and sometimes I was just guessing at it.  I got it wrong a bunch of times I later found out.

I should have done this Much earlier, but it was a pricy accessory.  The only problem I was having as I wandered around York was the Distagon wide angle lens is flarey.  I had to pass by a bunch of interesting shots simply because there was obvious lens flare where I was shooting from and I could not find a way out of it.  The Distagon is an old design.  It also has noticeable vignetting at the extreme corners.   But it’s amazingly sharp.  There is a newer 50mm lens for my Hasselblad I’ve seen on the used market, which they claim has improvements over the Distagon in terms of vignetting and flare.  But that’s another big wad of money.  There’s a 40mm that’s an even bigger wad of money and I really like shooting at the wide angle perspective.  It suits the kind of work I do.  But I can only spend so much on photography equipment in a year.  Film itself is getting a tad pricey…for some reason.

The Hasselblad is a tad heavy to start with, and the metering prism adds to that.  But it’s a compact weight and I don’t mind carrying it around if it’s because the camera is built to last.  I like solid things in my life and especially my tools.

[Edited a tad…]

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Adventures In Medium Format Photography…(continued)

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