National Aquarium

Reading this week:

  • The Beginnings of Nyasaland and North-Eastern Rhodesia 1859-95 by A.J. Hanna

My super amazing fiancée and I are big aquarium fans. So of course we can’t live in DC without eventually making our way over to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and on a lovely President’s Day Weekend we finally made it! I have many fond memories of the National Aquarium. I grew up between Baltimore and Annapolis so it was within easy reach and as kids we were of course big fans. I always thought it was really cool how the Blacktip Reef is designed, where it is kinda the bottom floor of the aquarium and you ascend upwards, gliding over the reef from higher and higher altitudes on cool escalator thingies. This is what I thought was cool as a kid and I still do.

The aquarium also has particularly impressive shark displays, which absolutely delighted my super amazing fiancée because she is super into sharks. Besides the sharks in the reef they have Shark Alley where you descend through a bunch of sharks and that is absolutely a hoot. Though I did notice (because she shared her pictures with me) that in addition to shark photos she took multiple pictures of jellyfish, which as is custom on this blog I have diligently turned into a gif:

I will also pause to highlight the aquarium’s tank of cichlids from the world-famous Lake Tanganyika! Lake Tanganyika is the second oldest lake in the world and therefore has a huge number of endemic fish species, most famously its cichlids, which used to be exported all over the world though I now I understand the market is not what it used to be. But anyways always nice to see some hometown heroes represented at the National Aquarium:

But my personal absolute favorite part of the museum is the rainforest exhibit at the very top. The aquarium just spent some time renovating all the glass and so it was all very light and airy. The rainforest exhibit was the whole reason I went to Brazil as my trip right after graduating from the Naval Academy and it was as cool as I remember it despite them no longer having the very dire-looking display showing rainforest deforestation that prompted me to go to the rainforest while I still could. This visit was probably my best visit ever to the rainforest at the aquarium actually, because we got to see sloths! The sloths I think are probably the biggest attraction in the rainforest area (though I also like the piranhas are also very cool and also acceptably good eatin’). Every time I go I try to spot them and I think I rarely if ever do. You see they are usually napping somewhere inaccessible, but this time all both sloths were napping very close to this observation platform they have, so it was possible to admire them in all their glory. This is there glory:

Fantastic isn’t it?!?!?! Anyways I was excited to see them. There were more visible animals as well, such as a large variety of birds:

The most interesting thing we learned on our visit to the aquarium is that they no longer have a dolphin show. I remember going to the dolphin show many many times in my youth and it was always the same and I always tried to sit in the splash zone. With evolving policies on the keeping of large marine mammals in aquariums they no longer have the dolphins regularly put on shows though they do apparently do regular training with the dolphins which you might be lucky enough to catch. Also interesting to learn is that they have been trying to build, for at least a decade, a new outdoor sanctuary for the dolphins. This does not seem to be going well, from what I can tell? I mean their last update was like two and a half years ago. I think I can see why though. They want a large swath of prime beachfront real estate in the tropics where they can also build a research facility and I have to imagine there can’t be too many places like that left let alone for anything resembling an affordable price, and they also note that all the likely places are also likely to be wiped out by climate change in the near future. I hope they find a spot before those dolphins just die off of natural causes though. It would be very nice for them. And I assume a very nice place to work.

So that was our day at the National Aquarium. It is an extremely nice aquarium and has lots of very educational displays and is an extraordinary way to see sharks and rays and jellyfish and cichlids and I can also say from personal experience and from our observations that day that it is extremely popular with children. But this was only the first part of our adventures that day, because we spent the whole afternoon looking at boats!!!!

Lake Steamers of East Africa

Reading this week:

  • Vanishing Fleece by Clara Parkes

As has been discussed many times on this blog before I am a sucker for steamships on Lake Tanganyika. Also discussed is the fact that there are probably two whole books in the world about these steamships, and they are both extremely difficult to get one’s hands on for less than a notable amount of money. The first of these books was Steam and Quinine which I managed to get from Yale. The second book about the lake steamers of east Africa is of course The Lake Steamers of East Africa by L.G. “Bill” Dennis, and the only place within a few hundred miles of me that has a copy is the Library of Congress, which actually is very convenient once you know what to do. I did not used to know what to do! But I do now.

The most confusing part of getting a reading card at the Library of Congress is finding the room. It’s not that complicated, there are signs everywhere, except I missed the elevator but eventually I recovered. Or at least that was the most complicated part for me, for others it was apparently filling out the online form despite all the people who tell you to fill out the online form, but the guy making the readers cards took it all in stride. You need a reading card to read any of the books at the Library of Congress, but it is not my sense that a majority of people who actually get cards read any books or even use it twice, but just want to go in and check out the main reading room from the ground floor. It is gorgeous and this is a good use of time. After I got my reading card I proudly walked into the main reading room and very much did not know what to do to actually do any reading, but one of the very friendly and very helpful librarians who clearly gets this question all the time walked me through the process, which is you request an item online and ask for it to be delivered to the main reading room. Then it takes at least an hour for it to arrive but that’s okay because they had wifi. Once your book arrives you go pick it up from the other nice librarian person and then find a desk to sit at and then you can read all about lake steamers to your heart’s content!!!

Anyways this post was meant to be a book review, because I might as well review all both books about lake steamers on the African great lakes, but I vacillated between that and writing about my Library of Congress experience which is what the above paragraph was about. The Lake Steamers of East Africa is pretty good. It is a much different book from Steam and Quinine, which was somewhat more about the romance of steaming around on the great lakes and also much more about the paintings that are reproduced in the book. Lake Steamers has a number of small historical photographs throughout it, like the one at the top or the diagram below of the Kingani:

The reason both of these pictures look so bad here is sheer hubris. Since one time I managed to “scan” several things at home with good lighting using only my phone camera, I was like “oh I can just take pictures of these on my phone and it’ll look great,” but it doesn’t look great, and I am sorry. I have since discovered that the Library of Congress has fancy self-service overhead book scanner thingies, but you gotta bring your own USB flash drive, so in the future my Library of Congress book reproductions might be better (maybe!). Anyways. Like I said Steam and Quinine is about the romance of steaming around on the lakes, but Lake Steamers is much more about the history of commercial steamship operations on the great lakes. It is ordered chronologically (unlike Steam and Quinine), so information on Lake Tanganyika is scattered throughout instead of being lumped into its own chapter. But a relatively small portion of the book is about Lake Tang; this is due to there not being a whole lot of commercial steamship history of Lake Tanganyika, especially compared to Lakes Nyassa and Victoria. But what it does have is very in-depth. For example, it has a detailed description of the raising of the Goetzen/Liemba, only a small part of which is below:

The German ship Goetzen had to be raised. In early December, 1922, a small salvage party assembled at Kigoma under Commander Kerr, assisted by Commander Sharp, both late Royal Navy and both resident in Kenya. The technical adviser was Mr. J. Shepherd, previously holding the same position in Dar es Salaam during operations on the sunken dock in that harbor…

Using the leaky pontoons an attempt was made to lift the vessel, although when the bow rose to the surface, the ship turned onto its starboard side. She was allowed to sink again and later righted. Extra steel pontoons were fabricated using the few tools available, but even with these the stern stayed down in eleven fathoms of water. It was not before the divers had entered the engine room to seal the shaft-tunnel door enabling a deeper airlock towards the stern that the salvage was successful on the 16th of March, 1924… The reconditioning had cost £30,000 and she earned her first revenue thirteen years after launching.

It also contains a chart of every ship launched on the lakes, including name, type, builder, launch date and location and other details. The author did not neglect color however::

The whole of Sunday was spent loading and off-loading at M’pulungu, Northern Rhodesia and was a great day for the European inhabitants of the surrounding region who drove up to two hundred miles from copper mining areas for a day on the Liemba, the early arrivals boarding by ten o’clock. The bar was open all day, lunch was served from twelve onwards and it was not unusual by five o’clock to see lunch being served in one part of the saloon or tea elsewhere. Some eighty miles inland and upward is the town of Abercorn, where history has it that a resident of the local Abercorn Arms died and was not found for four days when the room maid turned up.

So all in all a pretty good book despite some passages reading a little less woke than they could, frankly, and it is a crime it did not get a second printing or more specifically a crime that I haven’t located an extremely cheap copy in my neighborhood used bookstore. But until then there will always be the Library of Congress.

DeLorean Upgrades II

Reading this week:

  • The Banished Immortal by Ha Jin
  • The Coral Sea by Alan Villiers

To catch everyone up, the reason this post is called “DeLorean Upgrades II” is that there is a previous DeLorean Upgrades where I installed a cutoff relay into my DeLorean. It was also my first experience with designing a part and then using a local print shop to 3D print a cover for the cutoff relay switch. That got me hooked on the power of 3D printing (i.e. a fun new toy that I could suddenly justify because going to third party 3D printing services for funky little tchotchkes you aren’t already very sure will work is unjustifiably pricey and 3D printers turns out are pretty cheap). I wound up buying the cheapest 3D printer I could find and churned out a few more iterations of that switch which has now been happily sitting in the DeLorean since then. I then moved and sold that 3D printer but then for my last birthday my parents were nice enough to buy me an upgraded printer and I have had tons of fun since printing out mostly various brackets and stands. I then decided to turn my attention back to DeLorean upgrades.

But first! Also in plastic DeLorean upgrades, years ago (and twice actually) my mom had gotten me the Lego Back to the Future DeLorean set, which is a lovely little set. But then for Christmas she got me the much bigger and much improved DeLorean Lego set. To get it my poor dear sweet mother got up in the middle of the night with her finger over the mouse button so she could scoop it up before it sold out. The little set has a lot of charm and I like them a lot but WOW is the newer one large and detailed and has a very cool mechanism for switching the wheels to flight mode and there is a nifty little thing where the flux capacitor lights up and it even comes with a beer can and banana to put in the Mr. Fusion. Size comparison between the two sets is below:

And then, just for funsies, here they are with the real deal:

Ain’t she a beauty??

One more thing before we get to the main event. The advantage of my new printer (a Creality Ender 3 S1 Pro) is that it can print much larger things. A disadvantage of the DeLorean, from some perspectives, is the lack of cupholder. In my youth I remember being able to seamlessly hold a coffee, shift, and steer all with my two hands, but these days I have gotten lazy. For a long time I thought the best location for a cupholder in the DeLorean would be in the passenger side knee pad, as part of a flip-down latch mechanism. The biggest thing preventing me from doing that is that I would have to either cut a giant hole in my current knee pad or else make a new one. The first is a regrettable thing to do to the car and the second is beyond the capabilities of my current set of tools. I realized though that the console tray would fit on my printer bed and is easy to swap out without causing permanent damage to the car. I tried to design a sleek pop-up mechanism for a cupholder that would normally be hidden, but wasn’t satisfied with any of my designs. Then it dawned on me I could design just a normal cupholder, so that’s what I did:

I printed the above version pretty rough n’ ready just to test it out. I need to go on a long car trip to see how it works in practice and then maybe I can refine the design. I realize putting a cupholder in the DeLorean is blasphemy, but sometimes you just have to become an iconoclast. Sorry.

This brings us to the speedometer. The DeLorean has a well-documented design flaw where the speedometer tends to break due to some weaknesses in the linkages. I have generally learned to live with this and it has been a very tiny minority of the time of my owning the DeLorean where the speedometer has actually worked. You just gotta know about how fast you are going based on the tachometer and the gear you’re in. There are improved linkage parts available, and I think I have those actually but then I was driving somewhere north of 85mph (max speed on the stock speedometer) and the speedometer failed again and I didn’t want to bother to fix it (to the chagrin of my fiancée). Then I hit the idea to install a GPS speedometer.

My dream, if I ever had the time, money, and inclination, would be to swap out the instrument panel on the DeLorean entirely. The stock one is fine but I think what the DeLorean really deserves is a digital display like they were doing back in the ’80s on concept cars. What I have had in mind for years is something like the Nissan NRV II, but that is vastly beyond what I am going to achieve anytime soon. When I was poking around for GPS speedometers online that I could buy I was hoping for something digital I could use, however I didn’t find anything in the right form factor. I also briefly considered just sticking a digital GPS speedometer on top of the instrument cluster, à la the movie, but decided with a broken analog speedometer that was just silly. And finally since I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on a GPS speedometer there was a goodly chance I was just going to break, I opted for the cheapest one I could find on Amazon. Actually there are cheaper ones still, but I decided I wanted the odometer display, and I wanted the faceplate to somewhat match the stock speedometer.

Next step was figuring out how to install it. The speedometer comes in a rather hefty plastic housing that is meant for you to just stick into an appropriately sized hole in a piece of sheet metal or similar. This housing is too big to just stick into the instrument cluster, even if it wouldn’t look terrible, so my plan all along was to remove the innards from the housing and see if I could more elegantly integrate them into the panel. Taking it apart was annoyingly difficult. To get the glass cover off you had to loosen and then pry off that metal ring around it. The rest of the disassembly would have been a lot easier if I had realized what the blue rubber covering the mounting screws was, so I wound up using a rotary tool I bought for the occasion to crack that oyster open (as you can see above), only slicing through one wire in the process which I later soldered back together.

I had been hoping that the guts of the speedometer would be smaller than the faceplate, but the circuit board is the same size. Because of this, there is only one position that it fits into the instrument cluster. I considered for a while using my new rotary tool to do some surgery on the instrument cluster, but for the sake of not doing irreparable damage to a several hundred dollar part decided against it and just had to live with the new speedometer being a little out of line. Then the next step was designing a housing for the GPS speedometer that would let it be installed into the DeLorean instrument cluster. This would have been a lot easier if I ever got around to learning how to actually do 3D modelling, which I keep planning on getting around to. This is why the below design is less than elegant, but it works. The speedometer is snugly secured to the front panel, which replicates the size and shape of the stock panel and lets it get installed into the cluster. The external wires that the speedometer needs (power and GPS antenna) are routed through the back panel. I made those bits fiddlier than they needed to be but I had an urge to get fancy. The back panel also helps secure the new speedometer unit into the instrument cluster. I wound up cannibalizing from the stock speedometer the colored plastic for the indicator lights (I just used double-sided tape to mount it in place) and the two bolts that held the speedometer in the back, but those can be easily re-installed into the stock speedometer. To keep the stock speedometer safe in storage I printed up a custom box for it where it will be very snug. Below is the end result of all my modelling, prototyping, and printing. It isn’t perfect (it could be prettier and the speedometer is actually sliiiiightly off from vertical), but it works and I decided to install it to road-test it before trying future iterations. Plus I had to take my cat to the vet the next day (the DeLorean is my only car) and I needed to wrap this project up and reinstall the instrument cluster.

At the top of the page you can see the stock speedometer and my GPS faceplate side by side.

Once the new speedometer was bolted into place I reassembled the rest of the instrument cluster. Since I had bothered to remove the cluster from the car (which is a supremely annoying task, as is doing anything else on the DeLorean) I replaced the flexible circuit board in the back along with some bolts and washers. The GPS speedometer of course requires power and I figured the easiest thing to do was to wire it into the +12V and ground wires for the tachometer, hoping that doing so wouldn’t take out both instruments. I almost wired it in backwards but decided to double-check the wiring diagram. The picture below is of the back of the instrument cluster with the speedometer installed and wired up, a picture which I remembered to take only in the elevator on the way down to the car. The orange wire is for the speedometer’s backlight, which I eventually realized I had no convenient way to wire in and would have not jibed with the rest of the panel. As you can barely see the GPS antenna is also connected in the below picture. I routed the cable underneath the dashboard and placed the antenna itself on the dashboard, secured with some more double-sized mounting tape. It’s visible but relatively discreet.

And finally below we have the speedometer installed into the instrument cluster and working great! It’s obviously not the stock speedometer but I don’t think it looks too bad in with the other instruments. A last-second change I made which I think helped enormously was to replace the dial. The one that came with the GPS speedometer was red and designed to be backlit at night. I quickly printed up a new one that matched the other dials and it helps the GPS speedometer blend in a lot. I am very happy with the look. There are improvements to be made in the next round, and if I had the money the thing to do would probably be to figure out how to get a GPS speedometer where the servo for the dial is separate from the circuit board so I could place it better, along with making an entirely custom faceplate that matches the stock one. But this is for the future.

One decision I didn’t mention above was to get a speedometer that only goes up to 80. The stock speedometer goes up to 85 and it is an available upgrade to get one that goes up to 140. The nominal top speed of a DeLorean is something like 120, and I have bottomed out the stock speedometer plenty of times, so a larger range could have been useful. There are GPS speedometers that go higher but I decided granularity at lower speeds would be better. And there is no risk of this one breaking if I do exceed 80.

I am really happy having installed the GPS speedometer. It was a fun use of my 3D printer and added some good functionality to the car, namely a working speedometer. It takes the unit a minute or so to find the satellites after I exit the parking garage, and the speed lags half a second or so, but that’s easy to live with and a big upgrade from no speed indication at all. I am also really glad I did this project because the instrument cluster was developing other problems (indicators not working, lights going out) that were from the circuit board getting old, so now those have cleared up and have really improved the driving experience. I am looking forward to the next 3D printing project on the car!

Monster Jam

Reading this week:

  • Christian Missionaries and the Creation of Northern Rhodesia 1880-1924 by Robert I. Rotberg

This past weekend my super amazing fiancée and I went to Monster Jam! In doing so I achieved a bit of a childhood dream, which was to see Monster Trucks doing Monster Truck things and it was indeed pretty awesome. The genesis of us going to this particular event was because I got free tickets from Vet Tix, which is an organization that gives veterans (which includes me!) free tickets to various events. “Various events” seems to include in large part local standup comedy nights, but when the email came across my transom saying there was a chance to get free tickets to see Monster Trucks I was all about it. Since I had never asked for tickets before they gave me tickets, and we had a date with destiny.

The first most surprising thing about the night was my fiancée’s utter unfamiliarity with Monster Trucks. After much prodding she vaguely recalled seeing ads as a child. Now look I don’t know anything about Monster Trucks, but I am extremely aware of Monster Trucks, and am especially aware that they are big and loud and drive around doing things like jumping over things and maybe crushing smaller cars. I mean this is America! And Monster Trucks are the very loud beating heart of America! Plus I knew like, Grave Digger was a thing (which we saw that night!). Helpfully though Monster Jam has a Monster Jam 101 page with tons of useful information, which they not-so-helpfully emailed me only after we went, but nonetheless I now know the trucks run on methanol and generate 1500 horsepower!!! Neat!!!

But the second most surprising thing was how family friendly it was. There were tons of little kids and whole families out for a night of bonding over the smell of burning methanol. In retrospect I think this makes perfect sense since it was my inner 9-year-old that really wanted to see Monster Trucks. Monster Jam also seems to have leaned into this, because in addition to Grave Digger there was a truck that was shaped like a Dalmatian (a monster Dalmatian but still, more info on the extremely extensive wiki) and another shaped like a Megalodon:

We were of course rooting for Megalodon. However despite our earnest support she didn’t do so well:

Can’t win ’em all.

But yeah anyways the point is that Monster Jam was awesome!!!! They started off by racing around and that was really cool, and then they had the coolest event of the night which was all about two-wheel tricks, like wheelies or even making the Monster Trucks stand on their nose which was extremely impressive! I mean seriously the things they make those trucks do can’t be easy, even when you have all that torque. The technical skill is what impressed us the most, but maybe my fiancée and I are not the typical Monster Jam fans. But maybe we are! There is art in any endeavor in which you put your time and effort! Also at halftime they had motocross which was also very impressive and undoubtedly actually vastly more dangerous (no rollcages on these bikes):

After the intermission they had the donut competition which I think mostly illustrated the vast power of the exhaust of the trucks. And also the “flair” move most of the drivers did was take of the steering wheel as they were in the middle of the donut and hold it out the window which um I guess the steering wheel isn’t that important? But the front and rear steering of the trucks was a sight to behold. Anyways it all ended with the freestyle competition which was also an impressive display of skill, but focused way more on the raw power of jumps which made for the best pictures but some of the least interesting watching. When it was all finally over we were so revved up by all the revs and also the ups that we went out and got some fries before heading home for the night.

Monster Jam!!!!