Monthly Archives: July 2012

Conversions: the next project

On much cheerier subjects, several big shows are coming up, including the long-standing FenCon IX, so it’s time to consider several new projects. The first one presented itself at an estate sale: old-style CRT televisions are so obsolete that even the Salvation Army won’t take them, so people try to sell Eighties-era console sets on the nostalgia value alone. Some people may do so. Me, I have plans for a Nepenthes pitcher plant Wardian case from the case.

Television: Front

Thanks to the wonders of flat-screen technology, we’ll probably never see a return to big consoles, like the ones inordinately popular in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. Not that I’m complaining, because they took up huge amounts of available floor space, pumped out ridiculous amounts of heat, and encouraged excessive amounts of profanity when the main picture tube would blow and the owner had to haul the irreparable hulk to the curb. By the early Eighties, most televisions had replaced vacuum tubes with solid state circuitry, which meant that automatic picture adjustment was standard. However, it also meant that repairs by the untrained were pretty much impossible. Even better, by the mid-Eighties, the costs of televisions had dropped to the point where buying a new one was much cheaper than repairing an existing one.

Television: Rear

Over the last decade, LED and plasma screen displays have made all of these as obsolete as wire-spool recorders. If you find them, they’re usually in the aftermath of an estate sale, where either the owner died or simply decided to move to smaller lodgings. Most of the time, they were put out into the garage for background noise, at least until the US switched from analog to digital television signals and the cost of a converter kit was more than the value of the set. Considering how many converters were given away for free, that’s saying something. Right now, the remaining ones are of value mostly to hobbyists wanting to work with dead tech, and those wanting to do something new with them. Since I already have enough interests that the Czarina would shoot me in the face if I decided to move into archaic electronics, the new project involves taking advantage of the old set’s best features to make a practical and attractive plant display.

Television: back label

Seeing the old Zenith logo and name brings back fond memories, because the first color television my family ever purchased when I was a kid was a Zenith. It also brings on not-so-fond memories: it survived three moves to four states, and then caught fire one night in my parents’ bedroom as they were watching The Tonight Show. I seem to remember that Carl Sagan was the big guest that night, so it’s understandable that the television couldn’t handle that much awesomeness. This one had no such signs of trauma, but we need to crack it open to make sure.

Television: back plate

For this conversion, we’re leaving the outer facade alone as much as possible. For most of it, the concern is preservation and conservation instead of modification. With future sets, this may change, but right now, the idea is to continue the conceit that you’re getting a view into another world through an old stalwart TV. This means that on the back of the console, the various input panels remain intact, if only for completeness’s sake. Besides, any holes in the rear cover would need to be filled, especially if the finished conversion were to be used with small animals such as poison dart frogs.

Television: interior

Many console televisions have twist tabs to facilitate removal of the back cover, but apparently Zenith thought “Why do we put big warnings about electric shock and ‘no consumer-repairable parts inside’ and make it easy to crack open the back to play with those parts?” That’s a reasonable fear, so the cover is secured with hex screws. Take off the ones along the edge and along the rear connector panel, and here’s the interior. I don’t worry about my nephews’ and nieces’ kids looking at cutting-edge tech from my high school days and being shocked at how primitive it was. I’m too busy looking in shock at how much space had to be used inside to keep the heat under control.

Television: scorch

By way of example, the interior isn’t as horrible as it could be. Computer techs will tell you horror stories about the old Pentiums from the Nineties brought in for repair from households with both smokers and multiple cats. Seriously, if you can pull the resultant mess free, it looks more like the caulking used for the planks in whaling ships than anything found in a high-tech setting. The owner of this set didn’t smoke and apparently didn’t have cats, but enough dust came through since the television’s manufacture in 1991 to cake up on every plastic and metal surface. Just above the main CRT itself, the dust combined with the heat to produce quite the scorch on the interior of the console frame.

Television: innards

See all of this? This handled everything that a 1991 television could do, which wasn’t much. All that room and weight to handle the main picture tube, and everything else was controlled with an assembly smaller than an iPad. Today, of course, that same functionality goes into a processor and motherboard about the size of a Post-It Note pack. God, I love living in the future.

You may also notice the ventilation holes in the bottom of the console. This one not only has these holes, but cheap plastic wheels to allow the console to be moved without too many issues. The conversion is going to deal with both of these, as the air circulation needs better control than this.

Television: tube back

Now here’s where things get dangerous. Those nephews and nieces I mentioned earlier will never have to worry about the dangers of CRT implosion unless they do something as stupid as this, and I’m glad of it. Most of the weight of this television was tied up in the picture tube, which is reinforced glass. The reason it’s reinforced is that the old cathode ray tubes required a good vacuum inside to function, and the stronger the vacuum and the wider the screen, the stronger the tube walls themselves. Much like a SCUBA tank, anyone trying this needs to be extremely careful about damaging the neck or walls of the tube, because a sudden implosion means that the tube turns into a fragmentation bomb in close quarters. Such as when you’re removing it from the console for disposal, for instance.

Now’s also the time to mention that the capacitors in old televisions of this sort can store quite the charge, and store it for years. If you have concerns, I highly recommend talking to an electronics authority for proper dissipation of that latent charge, but wearing gloves and using insulated tools is vital.

Television: repair label

Now, here we have the post-mortem. Apparently, the original owner took it in for repairs a week before my 32nd birthday, and took it back when it couldn’t be repaired.

Television: side label

And here’s another bit of history: the guide supplied by Zenith with basic repair schematics and voltages, shellacked to the side of the console. You still see some of these in modern electronics, but they’re rapidly being replaced with URLs and QR codes. Completely understandable, seeing as how the information on a Web site can be updated at a moment’s notice, and the only way to update this material is with a recall. This is staying in, but with the option of covering it if the purchaser should be so inclined.

Television: removed tube

After a bit of wrangling, cutting of wires, and careful removal of the brackets that supported the tube, here’s what state-of-the-art video presentation came down to back in 1991. Putting it into a padded cart, rolling it to the curb, and then popping the vacuum via the circuitboard on the tip made the most sense.

Television: rear speaker

Now, as much as I’d love to hang onto some of the old tech and use it for other things, that’s just not practical or sane. Rigging up the old speaker holes with new ones and connecting them to an iPod jack is reasonable, but these big monstrosities are too old and probably an inch away from blowing out. They both came out for that reason and because they’re going to get in the way of the rest of the conversion.

Television: stripped frame

Here’s where the conversion starts to get interesting. For both security and control of air circulation, the back of the television console is going to be sealed up, and all access to the interior will come through the front. With the main bezel for the CRT unbolted, it’s actually fairly easy to set a fitted piece of glass, on a hinge so it can swing out of the way, into the front of the console. The problem here is that I want to retain the bezel, and it’s shaped specifically for a curved piece of glass. Also, while the controls are never going to have their original functionality, and it’s definitely not going to be usable with a remote with my current knowledge of electronics, the idea is to be able to use at least three of the original switches. Stripping out everything is the start, but this console has a long way to go before it’s ready for plants.

And how will that be done, you wonder? Well, you’ll have to keep coming back to watch the progress, won’t you?

A last farewell


The day before he died, we gave Tramplemaine one last view of the garden. He was never much for going outside, but he was always curious as to what I was doing out back. Since we knew it was time, we gave him one last request, and gave him as much time as he wanted.




I’ve had a lot of cats in my life, but nobody as inherently fascinating as Tramplemaine. In pace requiescat.

And summer finally got here

I’m not going to join in on the usual Texas mantra “It’s HOT,” because we’ve been inordinately lucky so far. I will say that I hope that everyone working outside has a way to get out of the heat…

Walking with Texans

As an addendum to the previous post, I’d like to note that the exemplary 1991 Jim Conrad short film Mondo Texas is now online, and it has several examples of particular Texas fascination with megaliths and oddities. Particularly the oddities. I’d like to note that the stone cows at 11:30, located in the Las Colinas area just west of Dallas proper, were so viciously mocked after this short film was released at the Dallas Video Festival that Las Colinas made a big point of dressing them up with trees, sidewalks, and benches. I know this, because when I worked for Sprint at its Las Colinas office in 1999, my office window literally looked over three of them. (Trust me: the trees didn’t make the little park any more hospitable in summer. Nothing short of giant blocks of ice could do that.)

Messing with future generations

A major theme with standard English gardening, without most people realizing it, is the promotion and proliferation of ancient mysteries. I’m not talking about actual mysteries, but the simulation of them. Aged, moss-covered sculptures, partial walls, arranged boulders and standing stones…there’s something deep and very unsettling, yet fascinating, about giving the hint of a deep history to a large garden area. Oh, with traditional English gardening styles, it’s cleaned up and organized, but that’s no different from how Maya noblemen used Olmec jewelry components for their own use. The Maya knew almost nothing about the Olmec other than what they discovered throughout their territories, and we aren’t much different today: even the name “Olmec” is a convenient term used for a lack of their real name, and famed archaeologist Michael D. Coe argues that we may never know this people’s real name.

And so what does this have to do with gardening? That depends utterly upon whether one wants to try something new. Trying to copy ancient artifacts and structures is entertaining enough, especially if you have the time and resources to build your own henges and megaliths. But what about picturing artifacts and structures from the near future, and incorporating that into a garden environment that suggested that these items were already ancient?

This isn’t exactly new. This sort of monument has already been suggested as a sign of hope, as with the Georgia Guidestones. And then there’s the Lovecraftian horror of proposals by Sandia Laboratories to keep humans away from nuclear waste burial sites until the waste therein is relatively safe. And then there’s the point-blank delusional, as with all of the stories of ancient history behind “America’s Stonehenge”. All elicit that overwhelming mystery. Even with the Sandia Labs’ artists’ proposals, anybody with a modicum of imagination can look over the drawings and immediately start answering what-if stories in their heads. “What if this isn’t a burial site for plutonium-contaminated footwear? What if this was the gravesite of something so horrific, something caught in the distant past by powers unknown to us, that merely digging anywhere near it will release that thing? And what if we forget the message and the signs, and do it anyway?”

Yes, given the opportunity, I’d design a garden that mashes A Canticle for Leibowitz and Rawhead Rex. Now you understand why I scared the hell out of my teachers in elementary school.

A lot of these thoughts coalesced when Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster posted a photo on Facebook that started a slow roiling boiling in my subconscious. For the Day Job, I already work in an area where my co-workers and I get into lively arguments about imagery and symbolism with non-literary messages and warnings. Talk to five usability experts, and you’ll get five different infodumps of feedback on symbol design. It’s hard even to keep consistency on what sort of symbols are used in which situation, and then there’s the issue with symbols that keep getting used even though the original meaning is obsolete. Look at any video or audio interface today and note how the “rewind” and “fast forward” symbols haven’t changed since the earliest days of wire and tape recorders. In another fifty years, we’ll probably still use them, even though the physical music and video storage technology that used it will be as quaint as black-and-white CRT televisions.

Modern pictograms

Likewise, look at this and try to figure out what it’s from. It’s remarkably easy to make jokes about the meaning, such as “Rocking reading and tunes are not edible” and “don’t shoot the midget”, but it takes a bit of effort to figure out what these pictograms mean. Then consider that these were ones chosen specifically to help people who couldn’t read, or couldn’t read the dominant language in the area. If this was dropped on you right now, would you be able to tell, without assistance, that this intended to say “Warning! Read the instruction manual. Use eye and ear protection. Do not aim toward face. Do not use close to people, especially children.”?

And here’s where the mystery comes in. Finding this on the side of a gas tank for a leaf blower or Weedeater is confusing enough. If you found this column carved in stone or concrete, weathered and moss-encrusted for decades or even centuries, would you get the same message? Why would you get that message, and what if carving it into rock gave a completely different symbolism than intended?

And that’s where the mystery comes in. Picture someone walking through your garden and coming across a cracked and lichen-encrusted slab of granite or concrete with this legend on the top. How badly would it mess with their heads, especially if your only answer to their questions was “What do you think it means? I don’t know about anybody else, but it means to me “It’s time to start practicing my concrete-carving skills, because I can only imagine what this would do to anybody living in this house after I’m gone.”

— The author wishes to thank Amanda Thomsen for sending me down a very dark and fascinating path with this photo, and for giving me permission to reuse it. One of these days, I’ll return the favor.

Have a Great Weekend

My sister and I are the only blondes in a family just roiling with gingers. Yes, we both hear this song a lot about this time of the year.

Things To Do In Dallas When You’re Dead

As a friendly heads-up, the Triffid Ranch 2012 tour continues, with a July 28 show at the Shadow Society at the Crown & Harp in Dallas. Since this Shadow Society gathering features live music, the cover is $5 after 10:00 p.m. Come for the music and the good company, stay for the carnivorous plants, and head home knowing that you’ve seen the garden and fashion show that Dallas desperately needs.