Indirect Endowment

[I write this not to gain credit or accolades, but as an attempt to inspire others who may have been blessed by similar good fortune or have been more successful than expected in saving for their futures to consider what to do with their “excess”.] 

My dad once told me that he was planning to “spend his children’s inheritance”.  It was his lighthearted way of saying that he was not going to restrict his spending during retirement.  He intended to pursue his passions for inventive projects and for philanthropic activity, especially for educational causes.  And that his children should continue saving for their own financial security.  None of us expected any different.

Well, he failed.  Despite his efforts to create the ultimate ham radio station, and to support his grandchildren through college, he left a surplus.  Not a Warren Buffet or Bill Gates level of wealth, but certainly more than we expected from a man who worked for a salary and who, while we were growing up, paid the mortgage by keeping our daily expenses to a minimum.

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Dad’s Dressing

With apologies to Newman’s Own

My mother managed a large household in a small house on a tight budget.  She had five children within a decade during the 1950s.  Armed with her Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, she prepared dinner every evening for a table of seven and had it ready by the time Dad came home from work.  Diet and meal recommendations in the US at that time were meat, starch, vegetable.  The food pyramid was yet to be invented, but family traditions provided the same guidance.

Our family dinners were always accompanied by a green salad: iceberg lettuce, carrots, celery and tomatoes, tossed into a large bowl and passed around the table for us to fill our individual plates or salad bowls.  My mother’s care in stretching her self-imposed grocery budget resulted in a few interesting dinner rules, one of them being that no one was permitted to take more than two slices of tomato in their salad portion.  (Another consequence of her frugality was that frozen orange juice was diluted with an additional measure of water, permitting us all to have a full juice glass at breakfast).

There was only one option for dressing the salad.  My mother would never consider buying those expensive bottled dressings because my dad could make a French-like salad dressing at home.  We would often watch him do this just before dinner.  A bottle would be fitted with a funnel, into which he would deliver various amounts of spices from the small spice jars kept on a lazy susan in the cupboard.  It was quantitatively uncalibrated; he’d just shake some into the funnel, give the lazy susan a turn, and see what else was available to add to the mix.  He would then add ketchup, followed by vinegar, oil, and water.  On occasion he would add drops of Worcestershire or lemon juice.  The bottle would then be capped and vigorously shaken to mix the ingredients into a tart and flavorful concoction that would eventually separate back out to something clearish floating over something reddish.  Shaking to remix the dressing before putting it on our salad was part of the dinner ritual as we passed the bottle around the table.

We all grew up with the understanding that dinner was always accompanied by a tossed salad, and there was only one dressing for it—Dad’s.  Over time of course, we grew up and left home and were forced to explore the commercial options for salad dressings.  They always seemed to come up short- too sweet or too thick or not enough tang. There was always some deficiency compared to Dad’s.  Later on, at extended family gatherings we would insist that he bring his dressing to provide an option at the salad station.  At some point, we pressured him to write down how to make it so that we could, in principle, reproduce it.

He yielded to that pressure.  To somehow quantify the arbitrary shakes into the funnel must have been an interesting exercise for him; it took a few iterations before he was satisfied.  He recorded his measures and supplemented them with an elaborate procedure to put them together.  This is not the technique I watched as a kid (which was quite simple– just shake the bottle), but the recipe at least gives a glimpse of how he thought it should be done.

I recently encountered that recipe and made a few batches of Tod’s Homemade Salad Dressing.  It was close, but did not match exactly my long-ago fond memories of it.  On the other hand, there may not be anything that would match those memories.

Realizing that perfect reproduction was impossible, I made an adaptation that scales the recipe to fit a standard size bottle and utilizes only two distinct measuring tools.  I invite you to try it.  Feel free to make any modifications you think might improve on it.  Dad would.


Tod’s Homemade Salad Dressing
Thor’s variation, using only two measures and fitting in a 16-oz bottle.

Ingredients:
1 tsp    celery salt/ground celery seed
1 tsp    onion salt/onion powder
1 tsp    paprika
½ tsp   salt (fill the tsp measure halfway)
½ tsp    black pepper
½ tsp   lemon pepper
1 cup   vinegar, in two ½ cup parts
½ cup   ketchup
¼ cup   oil (fill the ½ cup measure halfway)
¼ cup   water

Directions:
Add the spices to the bottle.
Add ½ cup of vinegar and shake to dissolve spices in the vinegar.
Add the ketchup, probably using a funnel.  Shake to mix.
Add the oil, rinsing the ketchup through the funnel.  Shake.
Add the remaining vinegar, rinsing the oil through the funnel. Shake.
Add the water. 
Shake. 
Shake.
Shake.

Lower calorie option:  omit the oil, increase the water.

Other optional ingredients to consider:  Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, garlic…

Stonehenge and Solitaire

My visit to Stonehenge in 1994

When Management Graphics adapted their film recording technology to support motion picture film formats, it was quickly adopted by movie studios to bring special effects from their computer memory images on to film.  There were some problems however, and one of the most serious was the difficulty in obtaining the full brightness range found in typical scenes, especially when they included lights—candle light, desk lamps, car headlights, streetlights.  Any light source, even a glimpse through a window to the bright outdoors, would cause a large flare in the final film frames, washing out detail in the scene.  Our customers complained, and we started down a path to research and solve the problem.

We understood what the fundamental issue was: halation, an effect caused by the glass faceplate of the cathode ray tube used for creating the image.  The bright spot on the phosphor screen was internally reflected at the glass surface which then illuminated the phosphor coating.  If phosphor were black, this would not be a problem, but phosphor coatings are white, as are most materials made of fine powder, and it resulted in this internal reflected light overexposing the film.  In the absence of a black phosphor, there were few other ways to mitigate the halation effect.

An example of halation on a photographic film plate.  The circular haloes and flare are apparent around the street lights in this 1910 image.

One of our customers was incorporating our film recorder into a full workstation system.  Quantel, a company in Newberry, England, had become successful in the early years of digital video and was looking for a way to expand its editing tool offerings into the motion picture market.  Quantel’s engineers understood the halation problem as well, but they didn’t want to rely on our figuring out a solution: they had an aggressive development schedule. 

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An Oscar for Solitaire

I’m occasionally asked about the Academy Award that my colleagues at Management Graphics received. It was during the early days of computer-generated special effects in motion pictures. A product I contributed to, the Solitaire Image Recorder, was selected as a technology advance worthy of the Academy’s Technical Achievement Award.  These awards are delivered in a parallel ceremony to the one we are all familiar with.  It features celebrities of a different kind: nerds.

This is the story of how my friend Rick Keeney ended up on that award stage. It has been adapted from his personal account and is a bit technical, but don’t let those details detract from the overall story line.

Rick Keeney, with the Academy Award for Technical Achievement, 1992.

Invention and Innovation

In the formative days of digital photographic imaging, output back to film was produced using specialized, often hand-built, image recorders that were difficult to align, calibrate, and keep running consistently.  As one of the early companies in the business of building and selling graphics workstations, Management Graphics (MGI) recognized that the drawbacks of the available film recorders were limiting its workstation sales.  MGI kicked off a development effort to build a film recorder that would be a robust and easy-to-use product. 

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Science or Sentiment, Generalized

Career “trophies”, coffee mugs, one of which was created by dye printing technology (depicting our development team), the other a memento commemorating the issue of an arcane patent.

There is a more general problem related to the “what to do with old lab notebooks” that some of us face.  It is what to do with our shoeboxes of photos (virtual digital shoeboxes and real ones).  And written correspondence.  Love letters.  Birthday cards and holiday cards that caught our attention enough that we saved them.  The trophies, actual physical trophies, or the certificates of commendation for a job well done.  Birth and death announcements.  Souvenirs of our travels, the mementos of the high points of our lives. 

All of them carry great meaning to us, invoking a romantic haze of fond memories from those times and places, for those people and events.  Yet those memories are internal to us; they are not shared, even with the persons we may have shared the moment with—at least not exactly. Each of them has his or her own version of those scenes.  And they are not shared in the same way with our children, and certainly not their children.  Our lives are an abstraction to them.  They weren’t even around when the main story was unfolding.

I have come to realize this in the last few years as I have processed the items left behind by my parents after their deaths.  I have a high regard for my father’s technical acumen and his many projects.  Some of them were to gather and archive family history, others documented his personal interests.  He was always an early adopter of technology and embraced digital photography well before I did.  He acquired a large collection of both film and digital pictures, organized in shoeboxes and digital folders.  He worked to digitally scan historic family photos that dated back to the 19th century. 

There is a treasure trove of history here, some even recent enough to overlap with my own, yet I do not find myself compelled to explore it.  And therein lies the problem.  If I am not inspired to carry forward the artifacts of prior generations, why would I expect subsequent generations to propagate mine?

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Science or Sentiment

The title page of my grandfather’s PhD thesis, a thick volume of scientific discovery, each page typewritten in carbon-paper triplicate by my grandmother during their time at Harvard. Interestingly, it was submitted on his (54th) birthday.

“Long before the term ecology became a part of the vocabulary of the scientist, primitive man, looking out over the expanse of blue-green water which characterized his favorite fishing haunt, was probably aware of the fact that notable alterations in the color and clarity of this body of water would occur as the seasons changed.”

The introductory sentence of Theodore Olson’s PhD thesis on algae blooms.

I was witness to my grandparents’ transition to an assisted living apartment from the home they had kept for more than half a century.  Though modest, it was the center of a busy family’s activities, and had accumulated the corresponding mementos through the decades.  It had also collected the technical artifacts of my grandfather’s scientific career, specimens of insects and fish and algae from his ecological and entomologist specialties.  He kept copies of his and his peers’ published works, along with those of his doctoral students, who carried on these disciplines, with the scientific rigor and methods that he taught them over their years in his tutelage.

I was there on the day when he had to empty the ‘wall of books‘ in his home library, which included the dissertations of his students.  There was no space for everything at the new apartment.   A few important reference volumes could be retained, but the others?  What to do with them?  Here were the compiled and distilled understandings of pioneers in biology, acquired through years of painstaking research, building upon the pyramid of human knowledge.  These breakthroughs of their time have now been incorporated into our general understanding of modern biology. 

What should happen to the first-ever photomicrographs of blue-green algae blooming to produce cyanobacterial toxins?  What should become of the tabulated counts of seasonal species of mosquitos that were the vectors of mosquito-borne diseases?  What should be the fate of that first chart correlating taconite processing and asbestos-like fibers in Lake Superior?  All of these new discoveries had been first reported in his research and in the dissertations of his PhD students. 

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The Wall of Books

This is adapted from a tribute that my father made at the memorial of his father, Theodore Olson, after whom we are both named, who died in 2002 at the age of 97.  I post it here for the online access of posterity, and to provide a portrayal of the scientific mindset of a family patriarch that influenced not only his students, but his entire family and several generations beyond.  Here is my father’s rendition of our family history.


The start of this story goes back almost 150 years. In about 1860 in Norway, Hans Opjörden left home and went to Oslo. Hans had the misfortune to be the second son in his family, and that meant that his older brother would inherit the family farm. Hans left home and headed off to Oslo, where he went to work in a shipyard building boats. After a while he decided he really wanted to sail on the boats instead of just building them. At this time Norway was a province of Sweden.  Shrewdly, Hans changed his name from Opjörden to Olson (with a Swedish spelling) and got Swedish sailing papers.

He went on several voyages and along the way befriended a shipmate named Peter Magnus Peterson.  We can imagine a conversation between them based on what subsequently happened.  Hans confided that he’d really wanted to be a farmer but had no prospects of getting land—and that being a sailor was not his “dream job”, but was good paying employment. 

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Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Enjoying the beauty of the BWCA in Superior National Forest. See https://www.sylvansport.com/go-field-notes-boundary-waters/

Andy Warhol, the celebrated pop artist of the 1960s, is credited with the quote “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Well, I guess we have reached the future, because here is our fifteen minutes.

We are the proud owners of a trailer that converts into a tent-like camper. It’s made by a US company, Sylvan Sport. We first learned about it from my cousin Bonnie Norman, an early adopter of nearly everything, and when I finally relinquished my VW Eurovan Westfalia pop-up (to a deserving family eager to enjoy and care for it), this was the obvious replacement. We have enjoyed our “Go Trailer” for several years now and somehow (from Bonnie?), Sylvan Sport learned of our enthusiasm and wanted to feature us on their website.

Our travel plans this last year were modified, along with everyone else’s in this time of covid rules. We didn’t make the cross-country trips we expected, but substituted numerous short trips to our wonderful Minnesota State Parks. I also redeemed a coupon from the Gerard sisters, to guide me in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a destination I was embarrassed to admit as a lifelong Minnesotan, I had not yet visited.

It was a beautiful fall week and I took my usual collection of cameras. Sylvan Sport sent a photographer to capture it as well, and a writer later called to interview us. The result is a promotional piece on their website that depicts the experience nicely, despite being truly impossible to portray the full beauty of Boundary Waters.

A day in the life of a covid quarantiner

The path along Minnehaha Creek, a popular route for our daily walks.

Every day begins with coffee, of course.

Which fortifies me as I peruse the headlines and digest my various online sets of news sources.

Eventually, I reach my fill of virus and political news, but it can take several hours.  By this time, it is mid-morning and I think about which collection of projects to work on that day.  I have several categories:  some of them are administrative, the overhead of life, like gathering info for filing taxes, or processing the mail that has accumulated, aging any viral contamination on its outer surfaces.  Or making another pass at compiling the email addresses for my high school class, which drafted me onto its reunion committee.

Another category is more physically constructive.  It includes working in my garage shop, on a woodworking project or attending to the never-ending items on the home repair list.  If it is sunny, I will opt for the session in the workshop, whose clerestory windows provide a strong boost to the positive mood that comes from working with tools and material in my hands.

Lunchtime brings me back to the house to enjoy something delicious that Poldi has cooked up.  These days in quarantine have led her to expand on her already extensive skills in the kitchen.  I am the beneficiary.  She updates me on whatever news she has gleaned from her sources.

The afternoon brings another set of options.  We listen to the press conference of the state health department, absorbing the meaning of today’s covid infection and death counts.  We once again are appreciative that as retirees we can easily isolate, but fear for our neighbors, friends and family, who must somehow continue to carry on with their business and livelihoods but must curtail it to conform to the allowed social distance.

While the sun is still amplifying the ambient temperature, Poldi and I strike out for a neighborhood walk.  I have analyzed the relative risks of contracting the virus while outdoors and crossing paths with passersby, and our masks are at standby on our neck.  If we engage someone for a conversation, or enter a storefront, the masks are immediately deployed.  The outing in our neighborhood is therapeutic.  Although I am an introvert, Poldi needs more connection.  A walk around the block is not enough, but it helps.

The evening brings us back to home life.  Poldi pursues her passion for cooking.  I work on my various interests including my archives of photographs, wondering how best to curate them for subsequent generations and researchers.  Yes, I know, it is a bit of hubris, but it helps me follow Carl Sagan’s advice when asked about the purpose of life:  “To do stuff!” 

Our evenings wind down in front of the television, finding programs and episodes that distract us and amuse us.  We fall into bed, sometimes exhausted by the day’s events, and sometimes relieved by our shared life throughout the pandemic. 

We are the lucky ones.  We are confined to our home with someone we love. We wish you the same.

Seven Years After

A panorama taken from the viewpoint at the “elders table”. Officiating the event with his wife Karen, Max Allers had just declared “By the superpowers vested in me, I now pronounce Thor and Poldi truly united!” 

Seven years ago we hosted The (happily ever) “After” Party.  It combined a renovation-housewarming (a year after the “Before” Party), and a commitment ceremony to mark the choice to share our lives in This Odd House.  It had a sixties theme, having both grown up as quasi-hippies in the sixties, and both turning 60 that month, Poldi on that very day!

It has been a wonderful seven years since, filled with love and adventures, and we had hoped to invite everyone back to reflect on them and to see what has happened since.  While many of us have experienced life events and transitions in the intervening years (marriages, births, deaths, retirements), none of us could have predicted we would all be staying at home, avoiding gatherings to avoid germs for a full year.

Eventually we will be back to some form of a new normal when we can get together and exchange those stories.  In the meantime, here is a picture of the setting in our backyard seven years ago.  In this picture we are at the end of the sidewalk with champagne, reveling in the affection and love of all the people with whom we were sharing this highlight moment of our lives.

Click, then drag to see if you can find yourself in the crowd.