Saturday, February 27, 2016

Miracles of modern technology

In case I haven't mentioned it, I live out here amongst the idiocy of rural life*, but I work in the city, in Providence specifically. They make me park about six miles from my office which gives me a couple of nice walks each day. My path takes me through a whole lot of vacant land resulting from the relocation of a stretch of interstate highway, which has been gradually undergoing transformation.

The latest project is what I believe to be a new electrical substation. For some reason it has to be on piles, a lot of them. Watching this procedure has been fabulous entertainment. First a big crane, a really humongous auger, and the pile driver, in pieces, showed up about 400 yards away from the site. They set up the pile driver over a period of a few days, attaching and raising the boom and then attaching the driving apparatus. They flew the flag of the company from the top of the boom, which is a good 40 feet high, I would say. The body of the machine is on tank tracks and obviously has to weigh mass quantities of tons in order to counterweight the boom.

After mucking around the site with backhoes and loaders for a week or so, they finally drove the big boys over there. The piles arrived on flat bed trucks, I'd guess 25 foot long  slabs of reinforced concrete. The crane was for getting them off the truck -- it turns out the pile driver does its own hoisting.

First they drill holes in the ground with the augur. The pile driver has two cables running from the top of the boom which get attached to u-bolts in the pile, one near the top and the other just above the center. Then the operator hauls the pile toward the vertical, runs the driving apparatus up the boom,  and maneuvers the top of the pile into a box in the apparatus, which is an astonishingly deft feat. Rather scarily, men on the ground then push the bottom of the pile -- it's obviously perfectly balanced on the lower u-bolt -- into a fitting that holds it in place. The machine then crawls to position the pile over the appropriate augur hole and starts pounding. In the old days they worked by repeatedly dropping a weight on the top of the pile -- you probably have an image of those big weights going up and down -- but now it uses a hydraulic ram.

This machine has got to cost half a million bucks. It's not what we think of as high tech but in fact it's the culmination of probably centuries of development, since the steam engine first came into use. I haven't researched the history but obviously there has been continual refinement of materials and machinery. The kind of construction that's happening by my daily walk would not have been possible 100 years ago and probably would not have been an economically viable choice until the postwar years. What we have now is an incremental improvement since then, as far as I know, but still, this is an astonishing capability that humans have given themselves, to pound 25 feet of reinforced concrete into the ground in about 20 minutes.

I got to observe all the stages of the operation on a day when my power at home had been knocked out by a windstorm. It happens a lot here, since the power lines run through the woods, so I get to think about our state of interdependence quite a lot. When you think about it, if you were to pull one thread from the fabric of civilization, you could get the whole thing to unravel. It's astonishing that it doesn't happen, actually.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


I was plowing my driveway the other day. As I came around a bend, I saw a big coyote running through the woods along the hillside above me. It was evidently following a scent, direct and determined, and it paid no attention to me and my tractor. The six inches of snow on the ground meant nothing to it. It turned down the hill and ran right in front of me, maybe 20 yards away, and headed off to the south.

My neighbor has a little dog who roams. She comes by my place pretty often. So I sent my neighbor an e-mail mentioning the coyote. He didn't respond, so I don't know if he was grateful for the tip or if he was resentful because he thought I was criticizing his dog parenting style.

Anyway, last night the temperature hit 11 below Fahrenheit and right now, at 10:00 am, it's still below zero. I could barely keep the house livable. So it's kind of amazing that the critters can make it through this weather but obviously they can. Sometimes it just gets this cold. They don't get the weather forecast so they can't prepare ahead of time. I imagine the coyotes have a den somewhere and can huddle together, but I do wonder about the deer.

Anyway, I have to step outside now to grab some firewood. I expect I'll survive.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

It's not as if they can "predict" the weather

Actually they usually do a pretty good job of late but not this time. A snowstorm that was supposed to blow harmlessly out to sea wound up dumping 10" of wet, sticky glue on Friday. The scene was surreal. The shit piled up on the tree branches until I just heard the sound of breaking wood all around me in the forest.

Since I didn't have warning, I hadn't put the snowplow on my tractor so I had to wrestle with it with my feet deep in slop and sleet falling soaking my jacket. Naturally the plow didn't want to seat properly on the apparatus so I spent half an hour pounding on it with a BFH* until I finally got it to lock on. Then when I did go to plow the snow was so gluey it  just stuck to the blade and wouldn't dump. I had to keep pushing plow loads to the side, the job took me an hour and a half and the driveway is still kind of a mess, though passable. The beech trees were all hanging over the middle of the road so they dumped their load on me as I passed underneath, and it went right down the back of my neck.

Oh yeah, among the innumerable limbs that came down in my driveway was one huge piece of oak that I couldn't move by hand. And neither of my chainsaws would start, for some reason. I did finally manage to push it out of the way with the tractor but I couldn't get it far enough off the road to get the brush out of the way so I had to cut the small stuff apart with loppers.

I should also mention that of course, the power went out. Actually according to the electric company's web site, 100% of the town was blacked out, which is no surprise since all the lines run under trees and the trees were raining branches.  I didn't really eat dinner and I just had to spend the evening reading by flashlight. The power came back on at about 4:30 am, so I do give them credit for working through the night.

The good news is that I had a deadline at work on Friday, and it so happens I completed it on Thursday, fully expecting to come in the next day. Which obviously I did not. But I have today to rest my back.

*That's a Big Fucking Hammer, as every carpenter and mechanic knows. The solution to many a problem.