Mount Sutro: An Electronic Periodical

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5.25-inch Floppy Diskette Article Archive

The Last Vestige of a Distant Memory

Bits of red paint among rusted nails and staples are all that remain on a wooden telephone pole from days past when a fire alarm box was mounted here.

197 Frederick Road, Tonawanda, New York: 28 June 2014

part of the Tonawanda album


Walking down the sidewalk where I first learned to ride a bicycle decades earlier, my gaze catches an object across the street. Only a moment after looking at it, a wooden telephone pole that is in no way remarkable, I am filled with that wonderful sensation of a memory being churned up from the mind's recesses. Synapses blazing, I walk closer to investigate.

Staring at the telephone pole, I see rusting nails and staples protruding from the wood as well as areas of fading red paint. The thing that I remembered is no longer present, but the flecks of red at least confirm that I am recalling things correctly. I am disappointed but not surprised, as the proliferation of newer technologies has caused the removal of fire alarm boxes from cities and towns across Western New York and nationwide.

Conceived of in Boston, Massachussets by Dr. William Channing in 1839 and built with partner Professor Moses G. Farmer of Salem, Massachussets, the fire alarm telegraph system was the first to pinpoint and communicate fire alarms in a practical manner. When the handle inside a fire alarm box was pulled, the device transmitted a Morse code style identifier that could be used by the fire department to locate the call or broadcast via diaphone.

Beyond their ease of use and necessity in the days before people had telephones — nevermind 4G smartphones with GPS — the boxes were also used in the advanced planning of fire response in that fire crews could pre-assign certain apparatus and personnel to respond to calls from specific alarm boxes based on the number and type of buildings nearby.

The fire alarm box from my childhood was removed sometime prior to September 2008, although I was not able to pinpoint the exact time without contacting the City of Tonawanda. The Buffalo News ran an article entitled "WNY communities are saying goodbye to their fire alarm boxes" on Monday, 25 February 2008 about how "the Village of Lancaster will likely become one of the last suburban municipalities to bid a fond goodbye to an American icon: the street corner fire alarm box." Their system east of Buffalo — about sixteen miles from the City of Tonawanda by car — was "officially disbanded in March 2008," the fire alarm street boxes subsequently bagged with black bin liners and then removed from telephone poles.

Perhaps somewhat confusingly, the City of Tonawanda is bordered by the Niagara River and the City of North Tonawanda to the north and the Town of Tonawanda to the west, south and east. The City of North Tonawanda removed their fire alarm box system in 2004 or 2005, while the Village of Kenmore within the Town of Tonawanda gradually removed street fire alarm boxes starting in 1981 after the town's Fire Alarm Office started "receiving and dispatching all Kenmore emergency calls."

Indeed, the Buffalo News article also notes that the Village of Depew, whose system was first activated in 1894, was to "become the sole remaining suburban holdout in Erie County relying on a fully functioning street box alarm system" after the neighboring Village of Lancaster removed theirs in March 2008. Most of the City of Buffalo's alarm boxes have been similarly dismantled, but a few were still reported to exist in February 2008.

"It's hard to let go, because it's sort of a tradition — they give you a warm, comfortable feeling. I can remember eyeing my street corner fire alarm as a boy and wondering what it would be like to pull that lever inside."

— William G. Cansdale, Jr., Village of Lancaster Mayor (1993–2012)

After Channing and Farmer invented the fire alarm telegraph system, it would go on to have an interesting history. In lieu of my own write up, I am instead presenting a historical acccount in the form of a three-page May 1902 article from Municipal Journal and Engineer magazine. Not only is this great because of its age, but more modern sources have less detailed and incorrect information. The pages are presented inline below; you can also download larger images and the entire volume of 286+ pages.

The Development of the Fire Alarm Telegraph
by H. H. Easterbrook
Municipal Journal and Engineer
Volume XII, № 5: May 1902
© 1901 C. M. Palmer: 253 Broadway, New York, New York.
Public Domain; Copyright Expired

 
 
Download Article, Page 220
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Download Entire Volume

 
 
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The Creatures of My Dreams

A curious white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawn stops to check me out while passing through our campsite on a morning forage with two others.

Near NW 115th Street, Chiefland, Florida: 11 October 2014

part of the Manatee Springs State Park album


A staple of my family camping trips, usually at one of forty-eight Florida State Parks that have a campground with in-site power and water, is our ongoing effort to see and photograph as much wildlife as possible. Most of the parks that we particularly enjoy and end up revisiting have provided us with excellent wildlife viewing opportunities, although this obviously fluctuates based on season, weather and other conditions. In hindsight, my journey to Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland last October was a harbinger of our upcoming luck in this department.

At one point while driving southeast on U.S. Route 98 between Perry and Cross City, a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) swooped down out of nowhere and clutched with its talons a piece of road kill on the centerline of the highway. It took off again, just in time to clear the car in front of me, and majestically flew over the center median parallel to me for probably fifteen seconds. I was stunned for a moment, my mouth literally agape. This would be the most distant encounter of the long weekend.

For a first visit at a state park, Manatee Springs made quite an impression on us. Not only was the campsite we reserved quite nice by our standards, but we saw and got close to deer, tortoise, snakes, birds, insects and small mammals. Hopefully not to their detriment, the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) living at Manatee Springs State Park were more curious and less afraid of humans than any that I have encountered previously.

Who knows how many other times they dropped by, but small groups of two and three deer came right through our Hickory loop campground site five times on Saturday and Sunday while we were sitting around the campfire. The area around our campsite was wooded and offered a nice buffer between sites, yet the deer came remarkably close during most of their visits.

For the most part, the deer seemed content foraging for their normal diet of legumes, plants and acorns on the forest floor as they made their way through. Based on how they checked us out and got fairly close, they did however seem interested in whether or not we perhaps had something more tasty for them to eat. Cranking the cute dial up to eleven, several of the deer seemed to be fawns learning the ropes from their mothers.

I was too engrossed in the moment to notice, but in reviewing the photograph timestamps of each encounter I am surprised at the durations of the visits. Three of the meetings were about ten minutes each, while the last two were about three minutes and one minute, respectively. While the deer's friendliness was certainly a bonus for us, I unfortunately fear that it is the result of other campers or nearby residents feeding them.

A couple of the deer were even more curious and unafraid than the others. During a late afternoon visit on Sunday, one of the deer kept getting closer and closer to me. I was shooting pictures rapidly, but the shutter noise was apparently not startling to it. As it got even closer, I decided to stop taking photos and instead put my empty hand out to see what would happen. To my amazement and joy, the deer came right up and sniffed my hand. It got even closer, so close that my hand was petting its neck for a brief moment, before moving away and rejoining the others.

The park gets its name from the first-magnitude Manatee Spring, located not far from the campgrounds at the end of a crystal clear stream that flows to the Suwannee River. The spring produces an average of one-hundred million gallons of water every day and is frequented by West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus) during the winter months. When the manatees are not around, the springs are a popular spot for humans to swim.

Although the deer were a particular highlight of this trip, we had many other close encounters with local fauna that I will have to document in a future article. In the meantime, the Manatee Springs State Park album contains more photographs of the friendly deer. Needless to say, we really enjoyed our time at Manatee Springs State Park and will definitely camp there again someday.

The Facing of Tempests of Dust

Looking up at Sutro Tower (1972) two days before a full moon from the path around Summit Reservoir (1954).

Near 1 La Avanzada Street, San Francisco, California: 25 January 2013

part of the Summit Reservoir album


In the nearly two decades before 2013 when I used shared web hosting services, I could not have imagined using my monthly data transfer allocation. My last shared hosting account came with a quota of eighteen gigabytes. I am now looking back on that with amusement, for my virtual private server transmitted 483% more than that in just fifteen hours earlier this week.

I do not regularly check the statistics for individual sites, instead focusing on the server-wide loads, data transfer and general performance. I was however curious to see the result of having reached out to some friends and contacts by email and Twitter about the new version of sutrotower.org on Sunday, 08 March 2015.

I was a bit surprised and honored to discover that one such contact, journalist Alexis C. Madrigal, included sutrotower.org as one of five items in the Fusion "Real Future" newsletter on Monday, 09 March 2015. Indeed, I just now noticed that one of my photographs is also featured in the header image of that newsletter.

With the resultant surge in traffic over a few days, I was pleased that my work had paid off. Beyond the piece in Fusion, I was also amused to see that SomaFM founder Rusty Hodge posted links on Twitter and Facebook, while another post on Twitter turned out to be from the chief information officer for Red Hat. This server runs CentOS, a distriubution of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Checking on things after work on Tuesday, 10 March 2015, I figured that was that. Those most interested had gotten their Sutro Tower fix and, although I never really think of such things, the content had reached a broader audience.

The following evening, I was performing some routine server maintenance when the load monitor at the top of the screen caught my attention. The one, five and fifteen minute load averages were all showing figures above one, which although still low is unusually high for my system, except when recompiling Apache or something similar. Investigating further, I discovered that there was also a spike in network traffic. Apparently, that was not that after all.

The source turned out to be a post made to Hacker News, a social links site not dissimilar from Reddit. I am not familiar with it, but it seems to be rather popular. Over the course of about fifteen hours, sutrotower.org transferred twice as much data than my entire server and all its hosted websites did during the six month period from September 2014 to February 2015. That is about 105 gigabytes and fifty-two gigabytes, respectively.

It is important to note that the new design's larger photographs are of course larger in file size, thus more data is transferred per visit than before. However, it was the approximately 20,000 visitors that came to sutrotower.org via Hacker News and its seemingly endless network of volunteer redistributors that provided the resultant spike.

In the end, I am really glad that this happened after my effort to improve overall site efficiency. The events of this week would rank as low when compared to the once-infamous Slashdot effect, but I am not sure how my old code would have handled the sudden influx of requests generated.

Actually, I am fairly certain it would not have performed very well at all.

The King of My Own Land

I am pleased to announce the release of Mount Sutro 6.0, the result of my redevelopment of this website's code and also featuring a rewrite of sutrotower.org. Although the driving force of this long overdue project was to modernize operations and bring to an end my growing aggravation with my home on the internet, it also provided an opportunity to make other changes. This new version features many enhancements and modernizations, the most significant of which are summarized below.

sutrotower.org

  • All but completely rewritten and restructured to make it easier to read

  • Updated with new facts and corrected information to provide a more comprehensive and detailed account

  • Added current information (2011–2015) researched or queued for inclusion along with more photographs

  • Created new download areas for groups of documents, such as annual inspections and antenna diagrams

  • Included more personal and human interest stories based on email correspondence and interviews

  • Inserted quotations of interest from those party to the history of Sutro Tower

  • Checked every hyperlink and removed broken links or replaced them with local copies or Internet Archive snapshots

mountsutro.org

  • Site code rewritten from the ground up in valid HTML5 and CSS3

  • Optimized existing PHP functions and wrote new ones to replace outdated and inefficient queries

  • Stylesheet rewritten to meet my current needs, but with some backward compatibility (a few more fixes are still needed)

  • Replaced or refreshed site icons and graphics, including the Windows interface

  • Increased the site's width to 1280 pixels, expanding the main content area to a width of 850 pixels

  • Added a custom headline font and set all text sizes to scale proportionally

  • Classified all pre-2015 articles as "archive" to demarcate the theme upgrade (old articles may have formatting issues)

This project has been on my list — I just checked and cannot believe it — for about a decade. The original version of Mount Sutro in 2001 was a static website with interactivity added via custom modules. On Thursday, 03 February 2005, I launched an updated version running on WordPress but the custom theme I created was a kludge of the old version into the basic framework of a theme. I did not know any better at the time and did what I could to make it work. However, when things that annoy you on other websites can be found on your own, it is time for a change.

Ever since I developed proper HTML5 and CSS3 WordPress themes from scratch for the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program (October 2011) and Joe's B.S. (May 2013), my irritation with and embarrassment by my own website grew exponentially. For example, I had been dreading the thought of someone looking at the source code or trying to validate it. Although it once worked at serving a specific purpose — rendering the same on all browsers and platforms back when that was quite an accomplishment — the legacy code was now hindering forward progress, delaying new content and stalling updates.

The impetus for finally getting started in early February 2015 was my inability to proceed with another project. I had been planning a series of articles about my Wonder Boys filming locations photo trip in June 2014. Presented in film order, the articles would have been published in real time over the three days depicted in the film: 26–28 February.

Unfortunately, this fun plan was soon derailed when I discovered that my computer's optical drive no longer read DVDs. Without frames from the film to include, the articles would not work. Instead of just getting steamed and producing nothing, I decided to redirect my creative energy into something that had no dependencies and Mount Sutro was it.

There are bound to be a few things that I missed along the way, so please send along any reports of unusual or unexpected behavior. Otherwise you are invited to look around, visit the new sutrotower.org and let me know what you think. Thank you!