How to drive a steam locomotive

I recently got to drive a steam locomotive! The Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, NV, allows you to Be the Engineer for a 14-mile trip up and down hills, through two tunnels, and across several road crossings. This is an incredible experience – visually and physically!

(By the way – I learned that you “run” or “operate” an engine, not “drive” it, since no steering is involved. But that is how they describe the experience to newcomers :) )

Did you ever see such a beautiful engine?


NN 40, built by Baldwin in 1910

Before climbing into the engineer’s seat, I had to study a 122-page rulebook and take a short (open book) exam. I learned about whistle signals, hand signals, speed limits, track warrants, air brakes, and more. I learned radio protocol (interestingly, it’s backwards from typical airplane conventions; you announce who you are and then who you want to speak with, e.g., “NN 93 to NN Conductor 93, over”). In addition, “the use of ten codes” (I assume this means things like “10-4”) is prohibited.

I also helped get the engine ready for action. The rest of the crew gave me small jobs, like greasing the many bolts that connect rods and other pieces, and refilling the oil reservoirs. Meanwhile, they stoked up the fire in the boiler, cleaned the engine, filled up the tender’s 6000-gallon water tank, and ensured we had enough coal. The steam engine goes through 75 gallons of water *per mile* and consumes about a ton of coal in the 14-mile trip we did!

After three hours of prep, the engine was ready to go! I climbed up into the cab and learned how to start and stop the engine, then practiced this while we were still in the railyard.

The primary controls are the throttle and the brake. The throttle is a squeeze lever with many (~20) detents. Bouncing along, it requires some fine eye-hand coordination to move it precisely to the desired notch. It, too, is backwards from the throttle on an airplane: moving it out (towards you) gives you more steam, not less!

The brake is a smaller handle, easier to manipulate. If you want to slow down, you move it to a setting that allows compressed air into the brake cylinders, pressing the brake shoes against the wheels. You monitor how much brake you are applying through a pressure gauge. Then you move the handle the other direction to release the compressed air (you can hear it hiss out) and the wheels resume unimpeded motion.

The massive locomotive responds slowly to control changes, so both controls are best applied with careful anticipation of the upcoming track – its grade, any curves, preparation for tunnels, etc.

There is also a reversing lever that is mounted vertically in the floor. As one of my books warns, “A strong arm is needed for the reversing lever!” It has a more subtle effect on locomotion by altering the amount of steam that gets into the piston cylinders on each stroke. You want it set full forward to get moving, then back it off for “cruise” to achieve more efficient operations.

And we were off! We left the railyard and climbed a gentle hill. We went through two tunnels and several road crossings. For each crossing, I blew the whistle – LONG LONG short LONG! Mike, our fireman, was busy shoveling coal as needed, injecting more water into the boiler, and ringing the bell through all crossings as well. What a delightful noise!

We used a GPS-based speedometer to track our speed, which stopped working each time we went into a tunnel. However, after a while you get a feel for speed based on the sound of the pistons (and such a lovely sound it is). Pistons mounted on each side provide the driving power for the large wheels. Each wheel gets driven twice per rotation (unlike engines in cars, airplanes, etc.):


In addition, the left and right wheels are offset in phase so that one side gets maximal torque when the other is at minimum (end of its stroke). So what you hear is CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff as the pistons go right-forward, left-forward, right-back, left-back, for a smooth continuous overall motion.

At the top of the hill, I gave the controls over to John, the engineer who was training me, and he traced our way through a “wye” (track set up to enable a three-point turn by an engine), which got us set up to return back downhill.

We then continued back down the hill to return to the railyard. The whole trip took about an hour and 15 minutes. After the initial learning curve, it got very comfortable to roll along and listen and respond to the chuff of the pistons as needed. My mind quieted and I filled up with the pure joy of the moment. What an overwhelming experience!


Me driving Number 40

Thank you to Richard Ondrovic for taking these fantastic photos!

A new use for human corpses

Here’s a neat idea – use composting techniques to take care of our own dead bodies.

In this TED talk, Katrina Spade makes a compelling argument for a new way of managing the corpse part of dying. I’ve long been a fan of cremation over burial, for the reasons she explains, but she also makes good points about the downside of how cremation consumes a lot of energy and generates, effectively, human ash pollution.

The idea of “re-composing” bodies, in ways that allow your molecules to be broken down and eventually used to nurture new life, is refreshing! I also like the idea that bereaved family and friends can have whatever kind of ceremony they like as part of the send-off of the body. For those who like to visit gravesites in remembrance of those who are gone, why not designate a location of positive memories with the deceased (a favorite beach or park, or the site of a graduation or wedding proposal or other significant event), or even have a shrine set aside inside the home (I’ve always liked this idea anyway).

Wired wrote an article about this last year that contains some diagrams about how the envisioned recomposition center would look and operate: Inside the Machine that will turn your Corpse into Compost

And for the current status of the project, check out Urban Death Project (a slightly more creepy name than “Urban Recomposer” or other alternatives). They already demonstrated success in composting six cadavers, and it looks like they are starting the next pilot project this month. This will be fascinating to follow!

Pick your prime meridian

On Earth, the line of zero degrees longitude runs through Greenwich, England. What about other planets?

Unlike latitude, longitude has no physically defined starting point. Zero degrees of latitude is at a planet’s equator and is easy to establish from the body’s rotation (although as noted by Wikipedia, technically it also depends on the “reference ellipsoid” chosen to model the body). In contrast, zero degrees of longitude can be wherever you want it to be. However, change it with caution: any modifications mean that all of your previous maps and published locations have to be updated!

This happened on Mars. Originally (1830), the line of zero degrees was set to be a point in a dark region that was 40 years later named (due to its utility) Sinus Meridiani (get it?).

In 1969, it was decided to change the prime meridian to go through a specific crater named Airy-0 (a smaller crater inside a bigger one named Airy). This was thanks to the higher resolution images that the Mariner 9 spacecraft generated, enabling the selection of a smaller, more precise, reference point. Each time we send higher resolution cameras to Mars, we get to see more and more details of this crater:


Airy-0 (top crater in each image) as seen by (A) Mariner 9 in 1972,
(B) Viking 1 in 1978, and
(C) Mars Global Surveyor in 2001.

However, this crater is still large enough (500 m across) to not be a very satisfying reference point to measure distances to other features. If you use a yardstick to measure that distance, where inside Airy-0 should one end of your stick go? You want your reference point to be as small as possible so that everyone measures distance the same way.

What do we have on Mars that is very small but very recognizable? Our landers!

But we don’t want to pick a new prime meridian. If we did, we’d have to change all our maps and localized data — a huge and infeasible task.

Instead, Mars cartographers did something very clever. They kept Airy-0 as the 0 point, then carefully calculated the longitude of the Viking 1 lander with respect to the center Airy-0. Why that lander? Because it’s been there the longest, so it provides a consistent reference point for all data going back to 1976. At the time Viking 1 landed, its location was known only to within 0.1 degree (~6 km). Its location is now known much more precisely. I was unable to find the exact number, but it’s at least an order of magnitude better. So today, all longitudes of Mars surface features or objects can be calculated with reference to the Viking 1 lander (at 48.222 deg W, not 0), enabling much higher precision in localization!


Viking 1, the lander that keeps on giving

This issue has become even more challenging with the discovery of exoplanets – including some for which we are starting to make maps. How shall we pick their prime meridians, without being able to see surface features?

Memory tricks that work

I enjoy learning about ways to improve my memory, or even other people’s attempts to improve theirs, as in Moonwalking with Einstein. The method of loci (or memory palace) technique is pretty cool, and I used it to memorize some flying-related info. But you know, it took effort!

The other day, I was listening to Jim Kwik’s podcast, Kwik Brain. The tone of the podcast is a bit too self-promotional and get-rich-quick-y for my tastes, but the episodes are short and I can skip over the annoying parts and listen to the rest at 1.5x (sorry, Jim!). But the fact is, in a recent episode he managed to get me to memorize the first ten elements in the periodic table… without even trying! (Much?) And I can reel them off forwards or backwards! Even now, weeks later!

To do this, Jim created a colorful little story.

Imagine a fire hydrant. (The more vividly/crazily/ridiculously you imagine each item, the more it will stick!) Attached to it is a helium balloon. Then some batteries smack into the balloon. They were launched from a barrel. There’s a board leaning against the barrel. A diamond rolls down it! Into … Knight Rider! Which is stuck between two oxen. They have nasty teeth, so you brush the oxen teeth with toothpaste. Next to you is a huge neon sign in flashing colors.

Bizarre! But you’ll remember it. And then…

The fire hydrant = hydrogen.
The balloon = helium.
The batteries = lithium.
The barrel = beryllium.
The board = boron.
The diamond = carbon.
Knight Rider = nitrogen.
The oxen = oxygen.
The toothpaste = fluorine.
The sign = neon.

Not only do you remember this, but you can walk backwards through the little scenario, from neon sign through Knight Rider all the way back to the fire hydrant, and recite Ne – F – O – N – C – B – Be – Li – He – H! Effortless!

This seems so easy when someone already came up with the mnemonic associations. Now I just need to get better at creating them.

He also talked about using your body to anchor a list (e.g., of shopping items). So you imagine item 1 on the top of your head (e.g., milk pouring down your head), then item 2 on your nose (e.g., strawberries stuck up your nose), and so on with mouth, ears, shoulders, fingers, belly button, seat. Or as many places as you need. I tried this the other day and it also worked.

But just like the method of loci, I have to wonder how many times you can re-use the same memory palace (“memory body”?). Wouldn’t the previous set of associations bleed over and get mixed up? Do I need bread this week, or was that last week’s belly button item? Indeed, the advice I’ve seen is to not re-use memory palaces… which seems pretty limiting in terms of the number of things you can memorize this way (although advocates claim that we interact with so many physical locations that you should never really exhaust your options). But maybe don’t re-use your body. :)

Flying to the Grand Canyon

Last weekend I flew the farthest that I’d yet gone as a pilot – to the Grand Canyon! It was a short overnight trip, with enough time to fly there, go for a beautiful hike, spend the night, and then fly back the next day.

I took the outbound leg, and my friend Manuel flew us back. The Grand Canyon airport (KGCN) is about three hours of flying from El Monte. After factoring in enough fuel for an alternate destination plus an extra 45 minutes of flying time (my standard margins), it just fit in the plane’s 38 gallons of usable fuel. (Originally I’d planned Valle as my alternate, only 18 miles from GCN – but in my pre-flight research I learned that it no longer sells fuel! The next closest option is Kingman, 97 miles from GCN!)

The usual June gloom meant an early morning start wasn’t possible, so we departed around 10 a.m. We climbed above the haze layer and kept going on up to 9500’. It was a bit clearer (but not entirely) once we crossed the mountains into the desert. We were on our way!

Three hours can be a long time in a plane. I entertained myself by tracking VORs in addition to the GPS. Then things got more challenging as some light turbulence set in. In addition to bumping around, we got a roller coaster feeling from a series of updrafts and downdrafts that would send us suddenly climbing or descending at 500 fpm. This required active attention to manage (pitch and throttle), especially given the occasional nearby traffic which made it very important to stick to our planned altitude. It is a funny feeling to be fighting that kind up updraft – nose pointed down yet fighting to avoid gaining altitude! It felt kind of like surfing! Also, I got to make a PIREP for light turbulence :)


Approaching the Canyon!

As we approached GCN, the winds were reported to be from 260 at 11 gusting to 18 knots. We were landing on runway 21, so that’s a healthy crosswind (with gusts). GCN is also high enough (6600′) that you need to be mindful of your mixture and prepared for faster groundspeed (as I’d trained two days earlier with a trip to Big Bear).

I entered right traffic and the tower gave me an altitude restriction – a first for me – in which I was not allowed to descend more than 300’ below pattern altitude until established on final. As I approached, I spotted a helicopter maneuvering below and figured out why I needed to stay high! I extended my downwind a bit to keep a healthy distance from the helicopter (their direction and speed are extremely hard to anticipate), then turned final as the helicopter went to its helipad. I landed without incident, marveling at the wide runway! I didn’t notice much of a crosswind so I think the winds had died down a bit.

Other things I learned on this long(er) flight:

  • Managing and transitioning between four different VFR charts with a kneeboard is a challenge!
  • Sometimes LA Center is just too busy and you get to “see and avoid” without flight following for a while :)
  • The PGS VOR seemed to be dead. Thank goodness for GPS!
  • It is possible for tach time to exceed Hobbs time!
  • It is hard to find good visual checkpoints when flying over the desert.
  • Sometime I want to try doing a flight via dead reckoning and see whether I can actually get to my destination using my planned headings and time durations for each leg. There’s so much uncertainty in predicted winds aloft and other sources of error that I’m not sure it’s possible to get to actually reach destination that’s three hours away – but pilots of yore did!

We tied down the plane and ordered fuel. We had consumed 24 gallons in 2 hrs 45 mins of flight – pretty good for this plane (my leaning was effective)! We had also benefited from a ~30-knot tailwind. We hit all of my predicted checkpoints almost precisely! I enjoy planning out the flight log and then tracking progress as we go.

We took a shuttle to the Grand Canyon itself and got in a lovely 3.5-hour late afternoon hike. The Grand Canyon is breathtaking from the top and from every switchback down the trail! We hiked down about 2.5 miles, then back up to watch the sunset from the rim.

The METAR and TAF the next morning included “FU” (smoke) – the first time I’ve seen it in reality! They were doing controlled burns north of the airport. The smoke was gone by the time we departed.

On the way back, I got to be a passenger and take lots of pictures. :) As we departed the airport, the Grand Canyon Railway train slid by right under us! What a treat!

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