The Silent Key

The Vibroplex Deluxe Original telegraph key, first manufactured in 1939.

I was moved recently by an unexpected item encountered while clearing out my parents’ home.  They both passed away in recent years leaving, as we all will, a lifetime of accumulated possessions.  Perhaps it is a rite of passage that we all mark our parents’ passing with tributes and shared memories, and then respectfully distribute their earthly possessions.

Those possessions usually include home furnishings of a previous era, and clothing that might fit but doesn’t match anyone’s current style or fashion.  Many kitchen utensils will find their way to donation centers.  Easy items to dispatch are those for which there are few memories.  The more difficult are those with sentimental attachments.  

My dad was an amateur radio operator, a “ham”, which is a term for the enthusiasts across the world that participate in this form of communication, ever since Marconi sent his first wireless message.  There is a broad and varied number of these practitioners of a discipline that requires technical expertise and skill, and a desire to share their experiences “over the air”.  

I grew up in this culture, listening to the chirps and squawks of my dad’s radio receiver late into the nights.  One of the essential ham skills was to tap out Morse code messages with a telegraph key — the first level of an amateur radio license (“Novice Class”) required proficiency at five words a minute.  My dad was extremely skilled at this and could signal at much higher rates.  As one improved in this skill, the limitations moved from brain-hand coordination to the mechanical key itself.

This limitation was recognized early on, and various ingenious adaptations of the simple momentary contact key were invented.  Some worked better than others.  Over the course of my dad’s ham career he acquired various makes and models of telegraph keys with which he competed in amateur radio contests, to see who could make contact with the most other hams in a weekend.

His amateur radio station equipment will find homes with other ham operators, but his set of telegraph keys were distributed to his children, all of whom have those memories of dot-dash Morse code beeps in the night.  This is the item I received:  on a beautiful chrome-plated base, the key itself is a delicate collection of mechanical components, carefully balanced and customized to the hand of the operator.  I am told that operators have a distinct “signature” that can be recognized when listening to the delivery of Morse code, each hand having its own rhythm and style.

This identifies the manufacturer, Vibroplex, and proudly displays its serial number and patented status.  The logo is a lightning bug, carefully anodized or painted red on the brass plate, a feature maintained even on current models.  This may be a collector’s item as there are many similar to be found at http://www.vibroplexcollector.net.

The ham community has an endearing term of respect for their fellow amateurs who have since passed away: Silent Key.  It is a reference to the early days of telegraphy where the letters SK were sent to designate the end of a transmission, and then the station would become silent.  

There is a national silent key registry,  the cumulative obituaries of the ham community, where you can look up life accounts of past amateurs, including my dad, K0TO.

His station is silent now, but my memories of it will remain until I too become silent.

Swedish Candelabras – Finis

It is considered good practice to finish up the old projects before embarking on new ones, but that doesn’t seem to be my way.  The new one gets started and the old one languishes in its nearly complete state, sometimes for years, until I grant amnesty, allowing it to fade into memory.

I had reached the point in the Swedish candelabra project where the challenges of woodworking had been solved, a working prototype had been made, a dozen pieces had been crafted, and all that was left were the trivial details of wiring the electric LED candles.

It turned out that, while not technically challenging, it was incredibly tedious, threading wires, stripping insulation, soldering the bulb contacts, splicing connections and gluing the simulated plastic candlesticks in place.  The first one I assembled took hours.

With eleven more to go, I found lots of excuses to not do them.  Eventually however, when the summer heat advisories provided reason to retreat to the cool workroom in my home, I would complete one, or maybe two, each day.  Eventually I reached the last one, by which time I was proficient– only an hour of assembly!

I can now declare this project complete, and I look forward to displaying the candelabras in our windows when the season shifts once again to long cold nights.  I hope they are seen by the passing neighbors as signs of hope, warmth, welcome, and good cheer, just like the ones we enjoyed in Sweden.

The ancestral home of my great-great-grandfather Sven Johan Lundberg in Mulseryd, Sweden, during a light snowfall last December. If you look closely you will find that each window hosts a welcoming candelabra.

The 15-minute rule, and other covid recommendations

Keeping an eye on my watch while conversing.

Since writing the previous blog entry (“What is my risk?”) I have encountered additional information to refine the risk calculation I outlined.  I found a reference that provides a better value for the relative intensity of aerosol generation between the activities of talking and passive breathing: approximately 10X (compared to my placeholder value of 2).  When this weighting is applied to the social interaction duration histogram, the critical exposure is reduced from four person-intensity-hours to three.  

This does not seem like a large impact on critical exposure but the intensity level associated with talking now requires that all of those short interactions become shorter.  If the critical exposure is 3 hours at level 1 (silent breathing in the same room), and talking is 10 times more intense, then an exposure of 0.3 hours (18 minutes) in conversation with an infectious person will deliver the critical dose of virus-laden aerosols.  This suggests a limit of 15 minutes in any interaction with a stranger: the 15-minute rule.

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What is my risk?

Taking a calculated risk at a favorite restaurant’s outdoor patio

Ever since the covid19 stay-at-home orders were relaxed for my state, I have been struggling to find some rules to guide me as we try to safely host small gatherings with qualified friends (today’s rules: outdoors, safe-distancing, maximum of two guests–who have also been in semi-quarantine).

I’d like to know “what is my risk?” after encountering N people in a day and spending a certain amount of time with each.  In particular, if I interact with store clerks for a few minutes each, walk or bicycle past maybe a hundred people, or sit in a (sparse) movie theater with a few dozen others for two hours, what risks am I taking?  I want to put it in relative terms with the risk I willingly accept when I drive a few miles for an everyday errand.

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Swedish Candelabras

A modest Swedish house in Skalo, Poldi’s ancestral home. Nearly all the houses are in this traditional red color with white trim.
A close up shows the candelabras in the windows, a wintertime custom here.

While in Sweden over the Christmas season, we noticed the popularity of candelabras placed in the windows of people’s homes.  In these northern latitudes where the darkness of the winter night dominates the few hours of daylight, the distinctive chevron of lights provided a cheery greeting from the windows of the traditional-styled Swedish houses.  

I thought it would be a nice accent to our own home with its not-so-traditional windows cut into a mansard roof.  Surely Ikea would have such an item, with some suitable unpronounceable name, but I was disappointed.  Perhaps I needed to shop the Ikea stores in Sweden rather than our Americanized versions of them.

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Retirement Inauguration

The logo for a project called Mongoose, an early system that was able to compute and send images to color copiers and printers.

Today was my last day of employment, and I will now be exchanging the two major foci of my creative time. 

My interests in photography and astronomy and art was always secondary to my full-time work as a color scientist, an occupation that has provided a long and fulfilling career. 

But this particular outcome was something of a fluke; the education I pursued was a hodge-podge of art, science, and engineering, and my early career was filled with jobs at not-quite-successful entrepreneurial startups that caused my dad to inquire where I was working next, because he wanted to avoid investing there!

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Career’s End

From my gun collection: an electron gun, extracted from a cathode ray tube

After years of fearing the consequences of corporate RIFs (“reduction in force”), aka layoffs, and having survived a dozen or more of them, I had finally reached the point where losing my job would have a lesser consequence.  I had built up my savings in anticipation of some future retirement and was now working for the sheer pleasure of it.  

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