Really old stack cutter

Part of my day involved making a few adjustments to this old Triumph stack cutter. This is a machine that can cut through a whole ream of paper at once. Guessing at its age… 30 years? 40 years? Maybe 50 years since that is the age of our college.

But it’s still in use. Take a look at the front platform, where paper is loaded. It is machine-turned aluminum, which is made when a circular wire brush is machine-pressed in progressive spots down onto the metal, making a bright textured finish that never wears off. And you may notice… it’s worn off, where stacks of paper are slid into the clamp and blade assembly.

Depth ruler for stack cutter
Transparent indicator fashioned from Plexiglas and colored red with nail polish

The bolt that adjusts the alignment fence (which ensures a square cut) was rusted in place, so it took some doing to move that fence over about a sixteenth of an inch. And while I was in there, hey, let’s replace the ruler that the operator uses to set the depth of cut. I used a nice self-adhesive steel-ribbon ruler from the L.S. Starrett company.  The old ruler had literally been hand-made out of paper by someone a long time ago. Their markings were dead accurate (!) but only at one-eighth intervals and the machine operator had wanted one with finer markings.

In the past I’ve repaired the crank handle that moves the depth stop in and out, the poly cutting block, and replaced the roughly two-pound steel blade. Later I’ll get someone to help me turn it over (it’s mostly cast iron) and give its mechanicals some serious TLC. Maybe get another ten years out of it.

I just love old machines like this. The company is still in business, so I’d say there isn’t a penalty for making such high-quality machinery. When you make something right in the first place, maybe you don’t have to replace it every other year? (Of course that only applies to mature technologies like heavy machines. Not to, for instance, smart phones which are still a new product category in development.)

When I do the major service, I’ll make pictures of its impressive internal mechanism.

  • The big crank on top lowers the clamp that holds the paper in place for cutting. There is a similar crank in front that moves the depth stop in and out to set cut depth.
  • The machine is designed for safety. You can arm it with one button in the middle, but to get the blade to come down? Takes both hands, one on each side of the machine like the buttons on a pinball machine. You’d have to be really creative to hurt yourself.

New York Times goes to war against fake news

Carl Hulse chief Washington Correspondent for the NYT at Illinois State University
Carl Hulse, chief Washington Correspondent for the NYT, at Illinois State University

Today as part of the American Democracy Project at Illinois State University, I attended a talk by Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times. Among other topics he shared some things that the NYT is doing to ensure their reporting is as credible as possible, while combatting fake news.

The Times is providing links to source documents when practical. “You can argue with the story, but it’s a lot harder to argue with the source document. They have a Reader Center which allows readers to respond in a constructive way and even suggest new stories. They are revisiting stories later to examine if they turned out right or if not, what was right. They are making corrections more prominent and detailed. And they are taking part in the Media Trust Project, on media ethics.
Other tidbits from his talk included:
  • Trump refers to FOX as ‘my channel’
  • Mark Zuckerberg is taking a long look at what advertising Facebook sold during the 2016 campaign, and he is not happy
  • Seeing how WikiLeaks was manipulated, the NYT is taking a long look at the use of email leaks, and trying to develop better guidelines
  • Democrats need an economic message. They thought the Obama coalition was available to them, but it was only available to Obama. They are going to have to improve their connection.
  • The State Department is vital to maintaining world peace, and right now it is perilously understaffed.
  • 53% of white women voted for Trump.
  • Hulse is an Illinois State University alum. When he first started at the Times, he was “the mid Western guy”. He showed us a picture of his original Vidette press pass. “I’m not sure what that ever got me into,” he said. “But I loved going here.” He is in two Halls Of Fame on campus.

In Q&A, I asked if there was a popular movement to ferret out and tamp down fake news. He said he knew of some efforts, but no huge groundswell.

Just today, the NYT published a good article on How To Fight Fake News.

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Flat-out wrong

Photo credit: Second Nexus, click pic to read article “Flat Earth Society is not a joke; it’s real and it’s growing.”

Flat-Earth advocates say things like “we should be able to feel the Earth turning so fast”. But it isn’t turning fast; it’s turning at 0.00067 rotations per minute, which is barely perceptible. Watch the hour hand on a clock and realize the Earth is turning half that fast. The “speed” relates to the fact that the hour hand is nearly four thousand miles long and we’re sitting on the end of it. And all the physical objects in our frame of reference are in the same spot, riding along with us.

Suppose you’re a passenger in a car moving sixty miles an hour. You hold one hand 12 inches above the other and drop a coin. It falls for 250 milliseconds “straight” down into your other hand. But if you mapped the coin’s fall in reference to the _ground_, it would make a right triangle one foot high and 22 feet long. Instead of the 90-degree fall we perceived inside the car, the outside observer (who has x-ray vision and can see through the car door) perceives the coin falling at a long slope of just 2.6 degrees. This is seamless to us because it is the nature of reality.

The great advance of science has been to add analysis to multiple frames of reference – the microscopic, the relational, the cosmic, subatomic, deep time, bullet time and so on. Our senses evolved to keep us alive and for little else. We can get more out of reality by measuring it and thinking about it, performing experiments when possible to gauge the result. And then looking for falsification in other fields that impinge on the same phenomena.



Kimball Reed Organ

This is the artifact I was photographing when the little butterfly landed next to me, posing. It’s an antique reed organ, discarded on the curb. Now, don’t feel bad for the instrument; it probably presided over a hundred years of weddings and baptisms and funerals and church services, surrounded all the while by people singing.

It might have been the only major instrument around for miles. And during its long existence, new instruments have been built, new KINDS of instruments have been built. Music has changed because people are alive and culture is alive and changing.

In the time this organ existed, two world wars and countless equally awful but smaller wars took place. Humans visited the moon. Video was invented and now everyone carries a video camera… incidental to other functions of the device.

I looked at the stop; “Vox Humana” and thought “That would be a cool name for a blog!” And… it is. For several blogs. I guess my blog will continue without a name for now.

Oh yeah… blogging was invented. I think about that when people face arguments and think others are curtailing their freedom of speech.

Anyway it didn’t seem right to give the instrument a sendoff without a moment’s appreciation and a few photos. You served us well, reed organ.

Vox Humana stop, detail.


American Experience The Great War

I’m watching American Experience:

Modern industrial warfare, and all its horrors. Popular heroes of battle. The flu. The treaty of Versailles, planting the seeds of another paroxysm of industrial war. And then racial violence driven by… fear that returning veteran Negros would be a conduit for communism into American society. Wilson’s reclusion, and his destruction of the treaty he had worked for, because of his hatred for HC Lodge. What if the US had been in the League of Nations, when Mussolini and Hitler had arisen?

What is it all for? What is a “just war”?

There are no just wars. Humanity, and humanity’s progress, are destroyed so men in power can strut and talk about ideals. That is in all wars, regardless.

If we need to fight a war, OK, fight a war. But don’t pretend it is a good thing. Don’t make believe the destruction and the loss of human culture and potential is in any way acceptable. It isn’t.

Let’s have done with trying to say any wars are moral, or good, or just. They’re not. Stop glorifying them. Even for good causes, they are a cause for shame.

Maybe if they are properly (de)valued, wars can finally be relegated to the last resort. Maybe then we can start thinking far enough ahead to see them coming, and ante up for a future we can be proud of.

Watch it online

Respecting the emotions of children

I saw a video recently that made me profoundly uncomfortable. It was a little girl coming home to discover a kitten in her bedroom. The caption was something like; “Watch this little girl’s adorable reaction to her new kitten after losing her cat/BFF six months before”.

She picked up the kitten and immediately burst into tears. She asked if they could keep it: “Yes”. And then she just fell to pieces. She sobbed uncontrollably holding the kitten. No doubt she was glad to have the kitten but her expression* was one of inconsolable grief. What’s up?

I can guess the timeline after she lost her cat/BFF.  Her parents were sad of course, but their daughter was prostrate with grief. They were patient for a while, but she soon got signals to the effect; “All right, now, that’s enough.” She wasn’t done grieving but she started damming it up somewhere.

Holding the tiny kitten, she was completely overwhelmed by the flood of pent-up grief. She was absolutely beyond any hope of control. All she could do was hold the kitten and sob. It went on for a long time.

And her parents thought it was a good idea to video the whole thing and post it on the internet.

She certainly needed a kitten*. And there was no chance of her receiving it without falling to pieces. But what are the situations in which it would be OK to invite the whole damn world to watch? Her friends? Her definitely-not friends? For as long as the internet shall remember?

I can think of a few instances where such coverage does make sense. A father grieving after a missile attack. An emotionally and physically shattered child sitting in a helicopter. A little girl running from a napalm attack. In these instances the public has a need, a responsibility, to know, and to face what has happened. It is bigger than the individual’s right to privacy.

But no weighty matter of geophysical politics hung in the balance here. In a few minutes she would ride through the flood, hopefully with her parents. And there would be more moments, in which the kitten would help her to process the experience and come out all right. In such extremes, put the damn camera down.

Children’s emotions are just like those of adults, and they have less of the stabilizing ballast that one gains from life experience. To put it another way, children are riding the same wave in a smaller boat. This is true of joy, grief, love, fear, and more. They face all these emotions with no basis for courage, because for all they know this is all there will ever be. So how’s about some respect?


  • I study photos of people very closely. Over the years I’ve learned to recognize expressions. That was some joy in a tsunami of grief.
  • Many people prefer the company of their cat or dog to that of people. Any people.

Gladly We Learn and Teach

Gladly We Learn And Teach is slogan of Illinois State UniversithyI always liked our university’s motto, but in an age of purposeful ignorance I’ve come to appreciate it even more.

Inspired by Chaucer’s Clerk, the motto means we bow to evidence. It means we understand the present and future by learning history. We will learn science, and weigh the claims of economic interests. We will embrace art, and find joy in human expression. And it means we are all richer for sharing what we learn.

“We” includes everyone: faculty, staff, students, citizens and visitors, men and women, genderqueer, deep scholars and wide-eyed children.

But today we live in a country where science and art are on the chopping block, where super-rich men play golf and talk about who they can exclude from the American dream. Where religious leaders try to take us back to the days when men claimed divine commission to decide what was true.

Our country is in thrall to a gospel of short-term gain. It reminds me of that story about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs: “Can’t we just cut the bird open? All those golden eggs are inside!” But that is is not how golden-egg laying geese, or society, or life, work. Those golden eggs are a product of the care we lavish on the goose.

Chaucer’s Clerk was not wealthy; in fact he lived in a way that was quite out of step with his times. But a whole society of people who are glad to learn, and glad to teach? That’s a different story.