Nature Gets Another A+

We humans are sooooo smart. Like, we invented the gear and all. This is what separates us from the animals.

Without gears, my drawbridge would be incapable of rising up, and I’d be out of a job. Without gears in my car’s transmission, I wouldn’t even be able to drive to the job. I also couldn’t take a bicycle. And on and on.

Gears are nifty. Whether you realize it or not, you can’t get through a day without a gear doing something or other for you. When’s the last time you used a can opener? Way to harness the world, mighty humans!

Um… except that we didn’t invent gears after all. Nature came to the same conclusion about the niftiness of gears long before we ever did. And we only found this out in 2013.

May I introduce you to Issus coleoptratus? Call him planthopper for short. He’s an insect that’s found in Europe and North Africa, and in his adolescent form, he has natural gears in his hind legs. The gears even have tapered teeth just like the gears we humans invented, and for the same reason: to prevent wear and tear.

These gears allow both of his hind legs to act in unison, so that he always hops in a straight line. That’s a useful tool for a planthopper to have. And the cool thing about these gears is that they’re only engaged when he’s planning to hop. It’s really quite fascinating to contemplate. Learn more about it by reading this article.

And this amazing design is left behind when the bug becomes an adult. Apparently adolescents can shed and regrow gears multiple times, but adults can’t, so if one of the teeth on their gears were to break… disaster. Nobody likes a hop-less planthopper.

So there you have it. Yet more evidence that nature is AWESOME, and that we humans need to be a lot more humble.

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The Heart of My Drawbridge

I have been opening drawbridges for a living for 18 ½ years. I’ve operated 9 different bridges in three states. I’ve operated bascule bridges, lift bridges, and swing bridges. I’m pretty proud of those statistics. I can only think of one bridgetender in this country who can (by just one bridge) beat that, and he’s now retired.

But here’s something I’ve never done until recently: I’ve never been down below, deep in the mechanical inner workings of a drawbridge, while a bridge opening was in progress. I knew what happened down there, because I have to help maintain the equipment, and I know what each moving part does. But I’ve never actually gotten to witness it in all these years, because it was always me operating the bridge during the opening. You can’t be two places at once.

Well, finally, a few weeks ago, I got to be down below while someone else was doing the driving. I was so excited! And of course I wanted to take videos to share with all of you.

My first concern had to be for my safety. There is about a million pounds of moving concrete and steel down there. Stand in the wrong place, and you can be partially or entirely crushed. That’s why we are always extremely cautious when there are workmen on the bridge, and will not do an opening unless we are assured that each one is in the clear.

So, after assuring my coworker that I was in a safe place, he commenced with the opening. I chose to be standing on a portion of the catwalk that is suspended above the pit where the counterweight sinks into the ground when the bridge goes up. This catwalk does not move, but the entire room basically spins around it.

Wow, what a rush. To see a drawbridge doing its well-choreographed dance everywhere you look is like nothing else on earth. I was suddenly proud that I’ve been part of this dance for all these years. It’s beautiful. I actually got tears in my eyes. Sniffle.

Anyway, I did manage to take these videos for your viewing pleasure. I wish I could adequately explain what’s going on. I know the lighting is poor, and I couldn’t get a good angle that would give you a better sense of where I was and what exactly is going on. I did the best that I could.

In the first one, you see the pinion (a large gear), rolling down the rack during the bridge closure. This is what allows the bridge to move. There’s another behind me, and a set on the north side of the bridge that is doing the same thing to operate the other bridge leaf. The counterweight (to the right) is lifting up, and the bridge leaf (out of sight to the left) is lowering down.

In the other video, I’m standing in basically the same place, but I’ve turned to look out towards the water. This one was taken as the bridge was opening for a boat. You’ll see the bridge leaf lift up, and a sailboat go through. You can also see the other leaf, on the other side of the water, lifting as well. In this one, the counterweight is dropping down behind me, and the pinions are also out of sight, but are rolling to the left and right of me. That’s when I started getting all sentimental. I just love my bridge.

I hope this makes at least a little sense, and that you enjoy seeing a drawbridge from a whole new point of view!

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She’s a Beauty

It happened again the other day. A captain, in an attempt to compliment my bridge, said, “She’s a real beauty.”

He meant well. And I took it in the spirit in which he intended it. But it still got on my nerves. At least he didn’t go on to say, “She has a hard time getting up when it’s cold, just like my wife,” as another captain has been known to do.

Can someone please give me an example of an inanimate object being referred to as a he? Please? I’m not talking about the gender designations of nouns that some languages use. That’s different.

No, I’m talking about those smarmy, affectionate references to cars, boats, drawbridges, and all things mechanical. Yes, maybe it’s because those objects are, more often than not, worked on by males, and they feel uncomfortable loving these things if they’re not female. Maybe it’s just the average hetero guy’s fear of being considered homosexual. (Heaven forfend.)

But I suspect that if you scratch the surface, what you’ll see is that many men like to play with mindless, passive things that will do their bidding without question. And even if they aren’t from the 19th century, somewhere, in some underground curriculum that we women are generally not privy to, they are all taught the same thing: that all those qualities mean that this thing must therefore be female.

I’m sure that most guys who do this haven’t even given it much thought, but I’m telling you, it’s offensive. It cramps my little lady-brain, just thinking about it. And I find it even more offensive on the rare occasion when a woman does it, because a woman should know better. It’s just one more microaggression in the sea of microaggressions that women have to swim in every single day. So please knock it off.

As a tiny form of resistance, I’ve always given my cars male names. But even then, I can’t bring myself to refer to them as he. My car will always be an it.

Women are not wind up dolls, and your classic car isn’t going to kiss you back. Well… unless you’re an objectophile. Then it’s a whole different ballgame. Read my thoughts on that here.

classic car

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Razim Frazim Succotash!

“Please don’t bother me,” he said, politely. But the tension was palpable.

Granted, he was up to his elbows in a mechanical nightmare, but jeez, why do men always get so freakin’ testy when they’re fixing stuff? I went away, feeling wounded. Men suck.

But I knew I would get over it, just as I knew he’d emerge from his blue funk once the project was completed. I’ve been avoiding grumpy men my whole life. I know the drill.

But then today at work, I decided to install new casement window handles myself. I mean, they were sitting right there. We have the tools. And if I waited for one of the mechanics to come out and do it, I’d probably be too old and feeble to open or close the windows. It’s only a priority for those of us who feel the wind wafting through the room as the temperature drops below freezing.

And I’d like to think I’m handy. I pretty much remodeled my first house. I used to do my own basic car repairs. It’s been a while, though. With increasing financial security comes the ability to hire someone else to do the scut work.

It should be easy, though. Just aligning screws in already existing holes. So I rolled up my sleeves and dove in to the project. And I soon found reasons to plunge into that same blue funkage myself.

To access the windows, I had to climb over furniture and contort myself into shapes that aren’t usually found in nature. And I’m not nearly as flexible as I once was. Then there’s the fact that some of the old handle screws had stripped the threads. And they had given us too many left handed latches, and not enough right handed ones. And our ratcheting screwdriver no longer ratchets. And I kept dropping the tiny little screws in all but inaccessible places.

Before I knew it, I was cursing like a sailor. And I imagined him walking in and cheerfully asking if I needed any help.

“Please don’t bother me,” I’d say.

I wonder if I’d have the class and dignity to say it as politely as he did? No. I’m thinking not. Definitely not.

Perspective. But at least we have window handles at work again. That counts for something.

Casement window latch

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Filmstrip Nostalgia

Mine was probably the last generation to enjoy filmstrips in class. By the late 70’s, these manually advanced instructional films accompanied by their annoying beeping cassette tapes were already becoming antiquated and kitschy.

When our teacher needed a break, we would be treated to one of these gems, which could be anything from “How Rubber is Made” to “Soapy the Germ Fighter” to “Images from the Louvre”. Or maybe it was a cautionary tale about the evils of drugs or a grizzly and graphic set of photos that showed exactly what your fate would be if you exceeded the speed limit or did not wear a seat belt. And there were always the dire warnings of what would happen to your reputation if you bent to peer pressure and allowed Jimmy to get past first base.

While the majority of my fellow students took these filmstrips as an opportunity for an afternoon nap, I was fascinated by the inner workings of these machines. Many of these films were scratched from overuse, and the sprockets were broken, which caused them to advance incorrectly, so you’d be treated to the top half of the last image coupled with the bottom half of the next. It was like looking at abstract art.

I loved learning how to thread the film into the machine, not because I wanted to be the teacher’s pet, but because I was interested in all things mechanical. And I was also anal enough to think that if I weren’t the one advancing the strip each time the cassette beeped, then we’d get woefully behind and kids would miss out on a learning opportunity. We couldn’t have that, now, could we?

If there isn’t some archive out there that is storing these little tiny windows on the culture of our more innocent past, there ought to be. The comic relief alone would be worth the cost of the storage.