Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2019

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June 26, 2019
Still Life with Flowers, Flag, and Fungi


Just a random bit of beauty I encountered Monday on my morning run. Worthwhile to stop and snap a pic. Caught it just in time. The homeowner didn't appreciate the fungi, and removed it the next day.

Postscript: July 2, 2019
I spoke too soon. The fungi are still there. I had just been looking at a different stump with flowers on top at the other end of the property.

Never mind.

April 27, 2019
Springtime in New York

Springtime in New York! Somehow doesn't have quite the same cache as Springtime in Paris. But New York City is a real place, and Spring can put a lovely face on even the most mercantile of cities. I was born and bred in that big Briar Patch, Brer Fox. I grew up in Inwood, close to the northern tip of Manhattan, and looked up out of my bedroom window at the tower of the Cloisters atop Fort Tryon Park. I'm happy to be out of the City now. Too crowded. Too noisy. Way too expensive. But I'm not intimidated by the place, and will make the trip in when the occasion warrants.

This occasion was to be a tourist in the city of my birth, and see some of the newer sights down at the bottom of Manhattan. Back in November, I had been contra dancing down in Greenwich Village with my friend Abby, and she had told me about the Oculus. And I had been hearing wonderful things about the High Line, which was in the same general area, and which Abby likes too. So I had asked her to show me around those two attractions when the weather got warm again. And lo! It's springtime in New York. Let's go.

Abby lives in the Bronx in Riverdale. When we had gone dancing in November, I made the mistake of picking her up and driving down to the dance in Greenwich Village. The traffic these days is much worse than it was when I was younger, and I had underestimated how bad it would be on a weekend. So this time I parked up by Abby's, and we took the subway downtown. She lives near the 242nd Street station of the #1 Train, which is elevated above the street at that point of the line. 242nd St. is the last stop on the line, right by Van Cortlandt Park. As a kid, I used to take the #1 to that station to work my Saturday job as a sales clerk at Brown's Hobby Center, right across the street from the park. So it was familiar territory.

But when I arrived, Abby told me that the #1 was shut down for repairs all weekend. But the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) had arranged for free shuttle busses to run along the route of the #1 into Manhattan, and then divert a few blocks westward to let riders pick up the A Train at 207th Street, which ran parallel to the #1. That was kind of nostalgic for me. I had lived at home while I was at college, and I took that A-Train to school in Brooklyn every day. The trip down went fine; we took the bus to the A, and rode the A down to the Fulton Street Station, and walked to the Oculus. It would not go so smoothly on the way home.

The Oculus

1. Human eye?
(Photo gleaned from the web)

2. Fancy column*

3. Atrium*

4. Observation platform

5. View from observation platform

6. Atrium*

7. Shops

8. Subway station

9. PATH station (Jonah's view of the whale?)


The Oculus is essentially a 3-1/2 billion dollar high-end shopping center built as part of the reconstruction of the area that was destroyed by the sabotage of the World Trade Towers during the 911 attack. I'm assuming that it got its name from the resemblance of the structure when viewed from the side to a human eye wearing long false eyelashes (Photo 1) With the exception of a very large Apple store and a Dunkin Donuts, there is very little in any of the shops that interests me in the slightest. But I am fascinated by the architecture. The structure is primarily of tubular steel bent into pleasing free-form shapes and welded. In many places it resembles the skeleton of some huge beast as seen from the inside (Photo 9). Some internal support columns are also multi-tubular concoctions, rather than a simpler single support (Photo 2)*.

The building also serves as a major transit hub, connecting 11 different subway lines (Photo 8) and the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) commuter train lines (Photo 9) The building has some aspects of a cathedral (Photo 5), and in some places, those of the great wrought-iron train sheds of late 19th Century railroad terminals (Photos 3 & 6)*. The main hall has an observation platform (Photo 4) at both ends, affording dramatic views of the main hall (Photo 5). I was particularly impressed and surprised at how noisy that hall wasn't. One would expect that with the huge high ceiling and hard terrazzo floors, the place would have echoed like a cathedral. But it didn't. I guess all of those tubes break up the reflections of the sound waves.

* Abby, on reviewing this account tells me that photos 2, 3, and 6 were not taken in the Oculus, but in an adjoining structure called Brookfield. (An odd name for a place so far removed from any brook or field.) But it's an interesting looking structure, anyway.

As I write this some 2-1/2 weeks after my visit, I hear on the news that the skylight over the main hall is leaking and has been temporarily sealed up with tens of thousands of dollars worth of what is essentially high-strength duct tape. The irony of that is not lost on me.

We wandered around the Oculus for about an hour or so, and then took the subway uptown a couple of stops to 14th Street, and walked a few blocks west to the High Line. As we walked, it became apparent that it was indeed Springtime in New York. The few instances of actual earth poking through the pavement had been planted, I assume by local residents, with flower beds (Photos 10 & 11 below), providing a cheery splash of color. [According to one Blog reader, those flower beds are actually planted by the Parks Department.] And as we approached 10th Avenue, I could see the elevated structure of the High Line, and the stairway that led up to it.

The High Line

10. Flowers in the City

11. Flowers in the City

12. The High Line

13. Old railroad tracks retained

14. Manhattan-Henge

15. Snazzy condos

16 First glimpse of the Vessel

According to their website,

"The High Line is a public park built on a 1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure running from Gansevoort St. to 34th St. on Manhattan’s West Side. The High Line was founded by neighborhood residents in 1999 to prevent the elevated rail track from being demolished. With the close partnership of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the High Line has transformed into a public space where every New Yorker and visitor is welcome and can experience the intersection of nature, art, and design. The High Line also facilitates a national learning community, called the High Line Network, for leaders of similar projects."

Although I live in New Jersey, I get most of my news from WNYC, New York City's public radio station. And ever since its opening in 2009, there had been a lot of local press about the High Line, almost all of it high praise. So I had been curious to see it. And I had visions of an oasis of sylvan tranquility in the midst of the bustling City. In this, I was sorely disappointed. First of all, the thing was built, after all, on top of an elevated railroad structure. So it was only 30 feet or so wide, which doesn't leave a lot of space for expansive vistas of greenery. And what few trees were planted on it were of necessity pretty small, as there wasn't much depth of soil available for a root structure. Then, since the park opened, Hudson Yards, an enormous development of high-end high-rise condos, offices, hotels, and stores had sprung up around the structure, hemming it in, and cutting off any vistas of the Hudson River except at its northern-most end where the structure veered west to the river. On top of that, it was noisy. There was the constant din of horns, sirens, diesel exhaust, and the general cacophony of New York City. And what greenery was there was only for looking at, not walking on. It would have never survived if people were not restricted to the paved path that meandered along it's narrow surface, as a result constricting all the foot traffic to a 10-foot wide corridor. It didn't help that this was the first really nice spring weekend day of the year, and the mobs were out in force. So making any progress was no walk in the park, if you'll forgive the expression. Photo 12 will give you the general idea.

In some places they left sections of the old rails amidst the greenery to remind you of the structure's original purpose. (Photo 13. Actually they probably just rebuilt the structure, and then laid new sections of rail upon it.) Looking westwards along 26th Street (Photo 14) shows a tiny slice of the Hudson River between the canyons of the buildings. On certain days of the year the sun will set right on the center line of the street, giving the phenomenon the nickname "Manhattan-Henge". Photo 15 shows a rather snazzy luxury condominium that went up as part of Hudson Yards. I wonder how the owners of the 3rd floor apartment like having the mobs looking into their windows from around 15 feet away. As the path swung west to follow 30th Street, we caught our first glimpse of what I felt to be the highlight of the walk: The Vessel (Photo 16).

The Vessel

17. The Vessel

19. The Vessel

20. Note Abby's reflection in the copper above her

18. Abby

21. Reflective copper cladding

22. The Vessel

23. The Vessel

I had not known about the Vessel until I encountered it on this walk. It was commissioned by Hudson Yards as a piece of artwork that could be visited. There's an elevator that will take you to the top if you don't want to climb the myriad staircases. Admission is free, but there are a limited number of tickets that one needs to reserve ahead of time. (They probably need to prevent overloading the structure as well as overcrowding it.) The fact that they must have spent an enormous amount of money on it, and devoted a huge plot of potentially income-producing New York City real estate to it says something good about somebody. The photos do not really reveal the structure. In fact, looking at it in person doesn't really reveal the structure. It is quite beautiful. And from an engineering standpoint, I marvel at a number of things about it. The outside surfaces appear to be clad in copper. But how do they prevent the surface from oxidizing to that familiar green patina like the Statue of Liberty? (Did you know that it is fashioned from sheet copper too?) And never mind that patina; how do they keep it so clean and shiny in grimy New York? And for that matter, how did they manufacture the mirror smooth and polished compound curved shapes of the pieces in the first place? All mysteries to me.

Needless to say, we did not obtain tickets. They had probably been scarfed up days or weeks ago. But we enjoyed looking at it from all angles on the ground, and watching the people.

By now we were getting hungry, so we found the nearby Stardust Diner, a real old-fashioned Art-Deco diner straight out of the 30s. We then took the subway back downtown again to 14th Street, and walked thence to the Church of the Village on 13th Street for the New York Country Dance Society's weekly contra dance. It turned out to be a great dance, with Pete Sutherland providing the music along with about 30 teenage kids from Vermont whom he'd been mentoring on playing fiddle tunes.

As good as the dancing was, Abby wanted to leave at halftime, having something to do early next morning. I had been on my feet all day, and dancing for half the evening, so I was willing to call it a night too. We picked up the A-Train uptown, expecting to retrace our steps to her home. And sure enough, over the loudspeakers on the train came the announcement about no #1 Train service over the weekend, and the availability of the shuttle bus to provide access to the #1 Train stops north of 207th Street to the end of the #1 line. But when we got to 207th Street we came out of the station to find a small mob of people waiting for the shuttle bus. From the conversations, we found that some of them had been waiting a long time.

We hung around for about 15 minutes, and still no shuttle showed. I started looking for taxis, but Abby finally said, "Let's walk." That didn't surprise me. I've gone walking with her before. She's only 5' tall, but she can walk me into the ground. I was pretty pooped, and it was a good 2 mile hike. But I said OK. We started out, with me occasionally looking back over my shoulder for a shuttle bus or a taxi. After about 1/2 mile, we came under the elevated tracks of the #1 Train along Broadway. And maybe a half mile later, I heard the rumble of a train on the tracks behind me. As it passed overhead, it suddenly dawned on me: Hey! I thought the #1 was not in service over the weekend! No wonder there was no shuttle bus. The damn train was running! They just neglected inform anybody about it. Including the lady who gave the announcement over the loudspeakers on the A-Train. When we finally got to Abby's place, she checked the MTA website, and it still said that there would be no #1 service until 5:00AM Monday. Curse you, MTA!!

Oh, well. We still had a lovely day. I said good night and drove back home, getting in at 2:00AM. Needless to say, I slept in Sunday morning..

March 31 - April 4, 2019
St. John

I had suggested to Jenny that we get away from the doldrums of winter and mud season and go someplace with beaches and palm trees and the like. She agreed, and we set up our usual division of labor: She'd do all the planning, and I'd do all the driving. Alas, when we compared schedules, the first time we could both get away at the same time was March 31 through April 4, a week after the cold weather had finally broke. Oh well. We can suffer through that.

It was to be a short trip this time; only 5 days. Jenny had introduced me to the Caribbean about 25 years ago, and we've made vacations to several islands since. She chose St. John in the US Virgin Islands, a place we'd not been before.

Click here to enter the travelogue.


March 19, 2019
Adventures in Technology

Monday, around 2:00 AM I awoke to a cold house. Well, colder than it should have been. Around 60°. Nothing life-threatening. But definitely indicative of something wrong. I got out of bed and felt the heat register. Cold.

Now I am well familiar with my heating system. In fact, I've fiddled with it and made so many alterations and improvements and Rube Goldberg additions to the system that if I ever sell this house, I'd have to include a service contract in the deal. As originally built in the 40s, the house was a summer cabin. When I first moved in, the house had been "winterized" by previous owners with minimal insulation and an oil-fired boiler feeding a baseboard hot-water heating system. That was able to heat the house to maybe 60° above the outside temperature. Which was OK except for the very coldest days of the year, when it would get downright chilly.

The living room had a fireplace (See the last photo of my Jan. 2 Blog entry below.) into which I had installed a wood-burning stove insert soon after I first moved in. The stove was one of those double-wall dealies that had blower attachment to blow air into the bottom of the chamber between the two walls, which would be heated by the fire, and expelled at the top of the chamber. That was rather noisy, and didn't really circulate the heated air very far into the house. So I took the next step..

I removed the blower, and replaced it with a steel manifold I designed and had manufactured which opened into the double wall chamber where the blower used to be, and also opened straight downwards. I broke through the hearth stone below that opening and through floor into the garage below. Then, with conventional household ventilation ducting, I ran a duct just below the garage ceiling to an intake at the very back of the living room. And in that duct, I installed a small conventional house ventilation blower. So now the blower takes the cold air from the back of the living room, and blows it into the heating chamber around the stove and out into the front of the living room. And since cold air is being sucked out of the house into the intake at the back, the warm air migrates through the room to replace the cold air.

Worked like a charm. The stove is able to keep the living room 80° above the outside temperature if I run it flat out. So the first sub-zero night that first winter with the stove, I was warm and comfy and satisfied with my handiwork. Unfortunately, the thermostat for the main heating system was also satisfied, and felt no need to run the baseboard heaters. Which were situated along the outside walls of the house. With just 3-/12 inches of fiberglass insulation between them and the sub-zero outside. You engineers out there can see it coming. The water in the heating registers froze. Which meant that when the fire died down, and the living room got down to the setpoint of the thermostat, the circulator pump couldn't move the heated water through the system due to the ice blockage. And the pipes got colder, and colder, and colder, until at 2:30 AM I was awakened by the first GUNNG! of a burst pipe. Over the next three days, I had every pipe in that heating system in my hands at one time or another in a 10° garage fixing split pipes and burst joints. Something needed to be done about this.

So here's what I did. I plumbed in a bypass pipe in the heating circuit that would allow the water to circulate, but bypassing the boiler, so it would not take any heat out of the boiler. I also installed an electric diverter valve on that bypass, so I could choose to run the water through the bypass or through the boiler, depending on which way the valve was open. And then with some spare parts from the lab at work, and using 1950s relay technology, I rigged up a little control box with two buttons on it, one labeled "Boiler", and the other labeled "Stove". And here's what they did: I'd light a fire in the woodstove, and once it got going good, I'd hit the "Stove" button. And here's what it did:

1. Turned on the blower in the garage.
2. Threw the diverter valve to bypass the boiler.
3. Turned on the circulator pump in the baseboard heating system. Now the water would continue to circulate through the system, never standing still long enough against the cold outside walls to freeze.
4. (And this was the real clever part) It changed the function of the room thermostat. The new function of the thermostat was that when the fire in the stove died down, and the room temperature came down to the setpoint of the thermostat, it reversed the previous three actions: It turned off the blower, threw the diverter valve to send the water through the boiler instead of the bypass, and returned control of the circulator pump to the heater control box. And it also returned the thermostat itself back to its normal function of maintaining the room temperature at its setpoint.

It was the world's most hairbrained cockamamie Rube Goldberg kluge you could ever imagine. But it worked like a charm for 40 years, and cost me maybe 150 bucks in parts.

But Monday morning at 2:00 AM it had stopped working.

I got out of bed to investigate. First of all, the gauges on the furnace indicated that it was working properly.  The temperature of the water in the furnace was 160° as it should have been.  And the diverter valve was indeed set to route the water through the boiler. That meant the circulator pump wasn’t operating to move that hot water through the system.  Putting an ear to the pump motor confirmed it was not turning.  Something had gone wrong with my system.

I had thoroughly documented the system with schematics and diagrams, but so long ago that it was almost like starting over again.  I had to back-engineer the system, and figure out what my original logic was when I created it.  In order to trace where the failure was, I got out my volt meter to test step by step which points of the circuit were live and which were not in order to locate the failure. I was poking around with the meter probes, when suddenly a relay clicked, and the pump motor started up again.  I didn’t see what I had done to cure the problem, and I couldn’t diagnose the problem because the problem had disappeared.  I went back to bed.

Of course, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning I again awoke to a cold house.  But armed with prior knowledge from the previous night, I knew where to take up the search.  Out with the volt meter again.  And as I touched the probe to one of the terminal screws in the furnace control box, I saw a tiny spark from the terminal.  It was a ground terminal with three ground wires all secured under the one screw.  And after 40 years, that screw had worked loose, and one of the wires had worked free.  Ta-daaaaah!  That’s what I must have poked at last night to restart the system.  I must have jiggled the loose wire enough so that it made tenuous contact with the screw, and made the connection.  But it was still loose enough to break the connection from vibration of the furnace, and failed again Tuesday morning.

I re-positioned the wayward wire under the screw, and tightened it up. Then I powered up the system again and put my hand on the pipe leading to the heating registers. Sure enough, it soon started to get hot, indicating that the hot water was indeed circulating. Fixed!!

It’s still a pretty iffy connection.  I’m going to go out an buy a bunch of ring terminals to put on the ends of all those wires to assure a more secure connection for the next 40 years.

The problem

The solution

Ain't technology grand?

January 2, 2019
A Blast From the Past

One Saturday afternoon last August I was surprised by an unexpected knock on my door. Now, pretty much any knock on my door is unexpected, because nobody knocks on my door. If I'm expecting a visitor, I'll hear the crunch of gravel on my driveway, and step out to greet them. And if I'm not expecting a visitor, they can't find my house. Even if I give them the address. You can't see my house from the road, and my driveway is long, and overgrown, and inconspicuous, and people drive right past it. I don't even get any trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

But this particular visitor had good reason to be able to find my house. Seems that her family owned the place about 65 years ago. Standing on my deck was Sandy VanTilburg, along with her husband and cousin. They were visiting the area from their current Texas home, and on a whim, dropped by to see the old place where she used to spend her summers as a kid. Well, of course I invited them in to look around.

What a treat for all of us! Of course, the place had changed enormously since then. For one thing it used to be a summer cabin: uninsulated, unheated (except for a through-the-wall propane heater resembling a primitive air conditioner), and very rustic. And for another, back then the place was only one storey with a crawlspace. When I moved in in 1980, it was still only one storey, but the house had been marginally insulated, and plumbed with a baseboard hot water heating system, and an addition was tacked onto the side with a utility room with a boiler. The propane heater was still there, but non-functional. The back yard borders on the Rockaway River, which, unknown to me at the time I bought it, occasionally comes to visit. (See my Blog Entry of March 11, 2011, God Willin' an' the Crick Don't Rise.) The first time the house got flooded, I resolved to do something about it. Over the course of the next year, I had the house raised about 6-1/2 feet, and turned that crawlspace into a full under-house garage. (That whole story is probably worth another Blog entry sometime. Alas, I did not own a camera then, so there would be no pictures.)

So, of course I invited them all in, and showed them all the innovative things I did to the house to turn those periodic catastrophes into minor inconveniences. And they regaled me with tales of idyllic summers spent on the river when the world and all of us had been younger. The visit lasted an hour or more, and when they left, they promised to send me photos of the time. Those photos arrived last November, and I finally got around to writing up this blog entry.

My house as it appears today

The house as it looked in the 50s. That's Sandy waving.

The back of the house as it appeared in the 50s

Sandy's Grandma Bess, who owned the house. Note the propane heater to the right of the chimney.

The back yard. The willow tree fell down decades ago. And they kept the lawn in much better shape than I do now.

It used to flood back then, too. See Blog Entry from March 11, 2011 for the contemporary equivalent.

Another view of the front of the house. Get a load of the old cars.

The living room back then. Dig the TV, man!

Same living room today. Newer TV. Same knotty pine paneling that sold me on the house in the first place. Note the air conditioner to the left of the fireplace where the propane heater used to be. Also note the lava lamps in the windows. My Christmas lights.

Says Sandy concerning her tenure in the place:
My grandparents, Bessie and Nathan, owed the house. I am not sure what year they purchased it but I would think sometime in the late 1940's or early 1950's. I am not sure if it was new when purchased. The house was a summer cottage, with no heat for the winter. My grandparents lived in Brooklyn and had two children. My family lived in Queens and my uncle and aunt lived in Brooklyn. Originally the entire family would spend the whole summer at the cottage. At some point, the house was deemed to small for all of us, and for as long as I can remember, we split the summer months. My grandparents stayed all summer and my family would spend either July or August, with my cousins getting the other month. We rotated months every year - if we were there in July this year, the next year we would get August. Memorial Day went with July and Labor Day with August. I spent every summer there from the year I was born until the mid 1970's. It was the happiest time of the year for me. It was more than just being off from school. To me it seemed that we were all relaxed and relatively carefree there. I felt the cottage brought out the best in all of us.

The series of floods over the years with the ensuing evacuations, clean-ups, and furniture replacement, eventually wore down the grown-ups. My grandmother's health was worsening and the grand-kids were pursuing other teenage and early adult activities. The house was sold in the mid 1970's, but as you now know, it has always retained a very special place in my heart.

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