Friday, December 08, 2006

Destination Moon

I recently saw George Pal’s 1950 science fiction classic Destination Moon. Unlike many sci-fi movies of the era, Destination Moon paid a lot of attention to getting the scientific details right. Back in 1950 human spaceflight was still 10 years in the future, so the science of a lunar expedition was pretty much guesswork.

One of the interesting things about the movie is the rocket ship. Pictures of 1950’s rockets have a sleek pleasing shape, with big fins, and often sport an attractive checkerboard design. Most of these designs are based on the V2 rocket built by the German s in 1942 during World War II.

These early visions of rocketry all accepted that spaceflight would be a lot like exploring the sea. Men would board ‘space ships’, and go on long journeys to far away places. The ships themselves would be sleek and reusable. It’s a romantic notion, as old as the sailing ship, but the harsh burden of gravity makes it impractical.

In 1968, when Apollo 11 made its journey to the moon, the reality of spaceflight was far different from that envisioned twenty years earlier. The moon mission used a massive Saturn V rocket, immensely larger than the ship in Destination Moon. The Saturn V stood 363 feet tall and weighed 6 million pounds fully fueled. It wasn’t a spaceship at all, but an expendable launch vehicle. Only the topmost 10 feet of the vehicle made it back to earth. The rest of the rocket was discarded, stage-by-stage along the journey.

Looking back, the closest we ever got to building the spaceship in Destination Moon was the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado.

Back from my November hiatus.

During the month of November I participated in National Novel Writing Month. The insane objective of NaNoWriMo is to produce a 50000 word novel in 30 days. Alas, I could not complete the mission. I got almost half-way there (24000) before running into irreconcilable plot problems. Everyone knows that great art can't be rushed. Maybe next year.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Ein Bier Bitte!

I was our first day in Germany. My German is a little sparse, but I knew a few important phrases:

“Sprechen Sie Englisch?” - Do you speak English?
“Wo ist die Toilette?” - Where is the toilette?
“Ich liebe dich” - I love you.

After checking into the hotel, we went out to practice our language skills. We found a quiet and very authentic brauhaus just down the street. I’d been anticipating this moment for years. A buxom beer maiden would bust through the swinging doors clutching huge frothing steins of strong beer. We would sing drinking songs and swing our mugs in unison to the “OOM-PAH-PAH” of tubas played by brawny men in lederhosen.

When the waiter arrived I proudly proclaimed:

“Zwei Bier bitte!”

That means “Two beers please”.

The waiter came back with two tiny glasses of a pale bubbly liquid. The glasses were tall and thin, sort of like oversized shot glasses. Was there some mistake? I looked around; everybody was drinking from the delicate little glasses. The neon sign in the window advertised “Gaffel Kölsch”. The poster on the wall said “Gaffel Kölsch”. The little glasses were labeled “Gaffel Kölsch”.

Was Gaffel Kölsch German for "Gay Bar"?

The patrons didn’t look especially gay. It occurred to me, perhaps there was more than one type of beer in Germany.

Kölsch is a local beer unique to Cologne, or Köln, as it’s known locally. The beer itself is a clear bright yellow color with a pronounced hoppiness. The taste is refreshing. Kölsch is actually a dialect of German spoken in Cologne – so the beer is named after the city. Natives in Cologne drink Kölsch – to do otherwise would be unpatriotic.

If you want a big frothing stein of beer, go to Munich.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Cute and tasty

I was recently on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and was surprised to see a big hairy animal swimming in the marsh. At first I thought it was a beaver - turns out it was a Nutria, or Louisana swamp rat.

Nutria are native to southern South America, where they are know as “Coypu”. During the 1930’s the state of Louisiana got the bright idea that they would be a valuable fur and food animal, and encouraged nutria farming. Among the pioneers of nutria farming was E. A. McHenry, famous for inventing Tabasco sauce. Nutria farming wasn’t profitable, and many of the animals escaped. Current estimates put the population at about 20 million in Louisiana. They have since found their way to North Carolina.

Nutria are tasty and cute, but they have a bad habit of destroying marshland. Not only that, but they can spread a parasitic infection called “nutria itch”. Many states are actively trying to eradicate the creatures. Marsh damage caused by nutria probably contributed to the destruction of hurricane Katrina.

Louisiana Nutria Recipe

Chef Philippe Parola Commandeur des Cordon Bleu de France

Heart Healthy "Crock-Pot" Nutria

  • 2 hind saddle portions of nutria meat
  • 1 tomato, cut in big wedges
  • 2 carrots, sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • 1 cup demi glace (optional)
  • 1 small onion, sliced thin
  • 2 potatoes, sliced thin
  • Brussel sprouts
  • 1 cup water
  • salt and pepper to taste
Layer onion, tomato, potatoes, carrots and Brussel sprouts in crock pot. Season nutria with salt, pepper and garlic to taste and place nutria over vegetables. Add wine and water, set crock pot on low and let cook until meat is tender. Cook for approximately 4 to 6 hours. Garnish with vegetables and demi glace (4 servings).

Monday, September 25, 2006

Darwin Awards

What makes this story remarkable is the understatement. The headline reads "Teen-agers Missing". A more sensational editor would have chosen "TEENAGED VANDALS BLOWN TO SMITHEREENS”. The story soberly continues:
“Sheriff Bob Rice believes one of them fired a shot into a tin-roofed storage building, possibly not knowing it contained 12 ½ tons of dynamite.”
I like the part about “possibly” not knowing the building was full of dynamite. Being teenage boys, they would have done it anyway. They may have stood a few feet farther back.

The picture tells the real story. Notice the guys in the upper right corner - just standing around and looking into the crater. There’s something about the way men stand around the scene of an accident. The conversation probably went something like this:
“Big damn hole”


“S’pose there any point in lookin’ for them boys?”

[long pause]


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Lingual torsion

I recently had a linguistic accident. It happened when I was looking for the Shoe Show (a shoe store), and was thinking about Japanese food.
"Shoe Show Sushi Store"
Say that five times - fast.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Flying trees

We take it for granted, but wood is a remarkable material. It’s strong and light, easy to work, attractive, and relatively cheap. For building airplanes, the strength to weight ratio of materials is critical – perhaps more than in any other technology. Early on, aircraft designers recognized the advantages of wood. Most airplanes had a wood structure up until World War II. For manufacturing efficiency, as much as for strength, wood eventually gave way to aluminum, and more recently composites.

A skilled craftsman can build almost anything out of wood. This includes not only airplanes, but almost any other vehicle. An Arizona man constructed a fully functional car out of wood. This isn’t your 1940’s Mercury “Woody” wagon with wooden panels – but a car with a complete wooden body.

Perhaps the most famous wooden vehicle of all time is Howard Hughes’ H-4 flying boat – the “Spruce Goose”.

The H-4 had a skin of molded plywood that many engineers agreed was both stronger and lighter than aluminum.

The H-4 was 218 feet long and had a wingspan of 319 feet. That was the biggest airplane EVER – until 1988 when the Russians built the An-225, which is slightly longer. By comparison, the enormous carbon-fiber and aluminum Airbus 380 passenger jet is dwarfed by its wooden predecessor.

One of the delights of wood is that the do-it-yourselfer can also get into the act. Can’t afford a motorcycle? Build one!

In addition to its strength, wood is aesthetically pleasing. When we think of computers we think of the ugly black or white plastic shell of a PC. A group of Russian craftsmen offer a new old twist on computer design. I wonder if there's a wooden disk-drive inside?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The latest census data

DALLAS, TEXAS. Figures released by the Census Bureau show rednecks are now the single largest stereotyped Caucasian group in the United States. Rednecks make up 18 percent of the U.S. Population, edging past hillbillies at 15 percent.

Demographic trends show that rednecks are also the fastest growing stereotyped Caucasian group, increasing a whopping 20 percent since the 2000 census. Other groups continued to decline, with hillbillies at 15 percent, hicks at 4 percent, and okies dwindling to less then one percentage point.

During the Great Depression (1929-1940) okies were the leading stereotyped group, peaking in 1933. Historically the okie population gave way to hillbillies, who peaked in 1963 with the airing of the hit CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. The earliest figures for rednecks only go back to 1945, when the Census Bureau combined crackers, peckerwoods, and Caucasian non-Oklahoma cowboys into the redneck classification.

Advertisers have been quick to recognize this trend. Bill Rand, CEO of Rand Econometrics, estimates that rednecks wield a staggering $2.1 trillion in purchasing power. “We’ve seen advertisers increasingly targeting the bubba demographic. You can see it in the explosive growth of Trucks, Beer, and Wal-Mart sales during the past 10 years,” explains Rand. “With FOX they have their own major media outlet, but others media groups are catching up.”

Rednecks are also a formidable political force, widely believed to have thrust George W. Bush and the Republican Party into a solid majority in the 2000 elections. Rednecks are ideal voters, having abundant transportation to the polls, as well as a willingness to embrace simple political messages. Democrats have been less successful at courting redneck voters, despite adopting southern candidates such as John Edwards or North Carolina.

Once considered a derogatory term, many Americans not proudly describe themselves as rednecks. In a surprising development, 4 percent of Hispanics, and 3 percent of African Americans also identify themselves as rednecks.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Lead paint

Back on the old days almost all white paint was made with lead. For thousands of years, lead was recognized for its ability to produce a superior opaque white pigment. Lead paint was used in almost all buildings, both inside and out.

Lead is toxic to humans, causing nervous system and brain damage, hearing loss, stunted growth, and memory loss. In 1978 the U.S. Government finally banned the use of lead paints for residential use. That means everyone over 30 was probably exposed to large amounts of lead during childhood. That explains a lot.

Take a look at this recipe from a 1953 U.S. Forest services painting manual:

Formulas for Mixing White Lead Paste Paint

For painting on new woodwork soft paste white lead paint should be mixed as follows:

Soft paste white lead : 100 pounds
Raw linseed oil
: 4 gallons
: 1-3/4 gallons
Paint drier
: 1 pint

Please note: That's 100 pounds of lead!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Some random thoughts

The majority of things you view and read on the web are created by writers, or at least by people who write. This seems like an expensive way to generate content. Machines could do it better, or at least - more efficiently.

Here are some interesting examples of randomly generated text. Some of them are pretty good:

My favorite - the random haiku generator – it can be downright profound. Click HERE.

How about random cartoons? They're not very good but it's an interesting concept. (I think this is how the cartoon Gil Thorpe is created.) Click HERE.

Random computer science papers. HERE

Need a website? Try the strangebananna - some of these look pretty good. HERE

A randomly generated version of the Onion. It’s not the worst humor site on the web. HERE.

Want to name a baby. This site generates random names based on census data. It's a great source for fictional character names. HERE.

And last, but not least, the blog-o-matic. This site generates random blog entries when you have nothing to say. HERE.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bear Bites Scout

This story was published in the The Salt Lake Tribune on 7/20/2006

An unidentified teen sleeping at a Boy Scout camp in the Left Fork of Hobble Creek Canyon was awakened early Wednesday morning when a black bear bit through a tent and into his upper arm.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) said the bite created a superficial wound that broke the skin, but "looked like a bee sting." Investigators said the boy was asleep when he was bitten. DWR conservation officers set a baited trap Wednesday to capture the bear and planned on staying in the camp overnight to watch for the bear.

This is an outrage! The boy's arm should have been amputated and given to the bear. Why? The U.S. constitution guarantees bears the right to keep arms.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Red Door

Have you ever noticed that many Chinese restaurants have red doors? I don’t know the reason for this, but I suspect it's related to the ancient practice of Feng Shui - the art of arranging items in space to achieve natural harmony. In Feng Shui, the red door is welcoming and promotes fame and reputation.

Episcopal churches also have red doors. Traditionally, the red door proclaimed that the church was a place of refuge. Soldiers could not pursue an enemy through the door of the church, and they would safe as long as they remained within. Later this came to represent that the church was a place of spiritual refuge.

This reminds me of a funny thing that happened to me the other day. I went to this Chinese restaurant, and the food was terrible. All they had was dry crackers and tiny little cups of wine. I’ll never go back there!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Art Gallery is Closed.

Mark Tansey. The Triumph of the New York School (1984)

Sometime in the 1850’s, with the invention of photography, painting became doomed to obsolescence. In the thousands of years leading up to this technological revolution, one of the main goals of painting was to accurately capture reality. Photography could record reality in a way that no painter, however skilled, could achieve. Although it took 150 years, painting would be dead by the year 2000.

Early black and white photographs couldn’t match either the vibrancy, or the originality of painting. Even so, most painters realized they were in trouble by the early 1900’s. Knowing they would loose the battle for realism, painters concentrated on color and fantastic compositions that photography couldn’t match. We can see this in colorful abstract cubist paintings and surrealism. Painters knew they had to deliver something that photography couldn’t.

Picasso in 1896.

Pablo Picasso, a talented classical painter, turned to abstraction. He knew there was no market for his classical realistic style, so he pushed the edges of his medium in terms of color and abstraction. Other classically trained artists like Salvidor Dali explored the fantastic – dream images that no photograph could ever capture.

Picasso in 1921.

Photography pushed ahead – movies could capture motion and sound in a way that no painter could ever hope to match.

Jackson Polock, Blue Poles. 1952.

By the 1950’s painting was loosing the battle of color to photography and printing. Jackson Pollock vibrantly spattered paint, and Robert Motherwell painted colorful gestures. The classic realistic painters faded away to nothingness. The painting “Triumph of the New York School” by Mark Tansey captures this moment perfectly. To the left, the old school painters like Matisse, Picasso, and Andre Breton prepare to surrender to the modern, represented by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning. The old school artists are dressed elegantly in World War I uniforms, while the modern artists wear the baggy practical GI uniforms of the US Army.

Andy Warhol, 1968.

Although the moderns survived for a few years, painting was dead. “Modern Art” represented the last spasmodic twitches of the painters. Having lost the battle for realism and color, painters counterattacked with more abstraction, and a general “artiness” that the photographers couldn’t match. Artists like Andy Warhol convinced us that being an “artist” was the important thing, not the medium. Warhol made soup cans and bananas into fine art, not because they were good, but because he was a famous artist.

Odd Nerdrum, 1995

A few dogged artists still keep at it, but painting is no longer mainstream. I enjoy a lot of modern painting, but I've got to admit that painting is dead. Still, some of it is pretty good. Odd Nerdrum paints surrealistic scenes which look like works of old masters. Photo realists like Clive Head blur the borders of painting and photography.

With computer games like Myst, something unexpected has happened. Computer animation offers photographic realism and it can do movement and color. Unlike movies, computer animation is interactive. Some movies like “The Lord of the Rings” are as much animation as photography. Soon, animation will be more realistic than live action photography.

Already, digital photography blurs the line between photography and animation. No longer can a photograph be accepted at face value. In fact, most photographs have been digitally modified in some way.

How long can photography last?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Microsoft's Legal Problems

SEATTLE, WA - In a landmark decision today, U.S. District Court barred Microsoft Corporation from using the name “Windows Genuine Advantage”. The Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) software is designed to thwart piracy and keep track of the programs and files users install on their computers.

“The program is neither genuine nor and advantage to consumers,” stated U.S District Judge Thomas Greenfield Jackson in a 60 page opinion. Judge Jefferson found that Microsoft’s usage of the name Windows Genuine Advantage was fraudulent. He ordered Microsoft to immediately re-brand the product to use a less misleading name.

Microsoft attorneys responded immediately by appealing the decision. “Considering the $125 million we contributed to the Senate and White House, this opinion is outrageous,” responded Microsoft Attorney John Morgan. “We expected better from the pro-business Republican majority judiciary”. Many experts expected the Reagan appointed Judge Jefferson to be sympathetic to the Seattle based software giant.

In Judge Jefferson’s opinion, he pointed out that the program offers no advantage to the consumer. In fact, the program collects personal information about the customer’s computer, such as software configuration, usage, and web-site preferences and forwards the information to Microsoft. The program warns users if it detects unsanctioned files on the computer, and bars users from downloading software updates.

The program also cannot use the label “Genuine”, because the majority of Microsoft products have been copied from other competing products. For example, Microsoft’s popular Internet Explorer was copied almost wholly from a product called Netscape Navigator. The company’s top selling Excel program is widely recognized as derivative of VisiCalc (1979), and Lotus 1-2-3 (1983).

“In fact, the name ‘Windows Genuine Advantage’ is an oxymoron. This is one of the most egregious excesses of marketing I have ever seen,” said Judge Jefferson. The court has given Microsoft 30 days to propose a new moniker for the product. Among the most popular are “Microsoft Derivative Disadvantage”, “Windows Enforcer”, and “Windows Ethnic Cleanser”.

In a related story, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lawyers are reportedly conducting negotiations with Microsoft to tie into the Windows Genuine Advantage program. The RIAA sees the WGA program as an ideal way to reduce piracy of copyrighted materials such as music recordings. Because 95 percent of all computers run on the Microsoft platform, this would offer the RIAA a powerful tool in identifying potential violators. Microsoft executives have reportedly been positive about the alliance, seeing it as a further means to crush the freedom of computer users.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Raoul’s helpful guide to common medical conditions

Have you ever noticed that the more information you have about an illness, the worse you feel?

Back in the ancient days before medical information was available on the internet, you’d go to the doctor and he would tell you to take a Tylenol and get some rest. Your doctor knows all about thousands of horrifying diseases, but he also knows they are rare. He doesn’t mention them. In a few days you’ll feel better.

For the do-it-yourselfer, it can take hours of patient googling to wade through the hundreds of painful, disabling, and fatal diseases that match your symptoms. Never fear. For your convenience, I have assembled several of the worst case scenarios for the common headache.

Symptom: Headache nausea, and fever.

Likely cause: Inter-cranial hemorrhage

Details: A serious, often fatal condition caused by bleeding within the skull. Intracranial bleeding occurs when a blood vessel in the head is ruptured or leaks. It can result from physical trauma (as occurs in head injury) or suddenly to perfectly healthy people like you.


Symptom: Headache, weakness, dizziness.

Likely cause: Stroke

Details: Stroke is the third leading cause of death and adult disability in the US and industrialized European nations. The likelihood of your suffering a stroke during your lifetime is very high, why not now?

Also known as cerebrovascular accident (CVA), is an acute neurologic injury whereby the blood supply to a part of the brain is interrupted, either by arterial blockage or rupture (hemorrhage). The part of the brain perfused by a blocked or burst artery can no longer receive oxygen carried by the blood; brain cells are therefore damaged or die (become necrotic), impairing function from that part of the brain. Stroke is a medical emergency and can Often leads to hemorrhagic stroke and sudden death.cause permanent neurologic damage or even death if not promptly diagnosed and treated.


Symptom: Headache, fever, stiff neck.

Likely cause: Meningitis

Details: A serious infectious disease that strikes young healthy people.

Inflammation of the membranes (meninges) covering the brain and the spinal cord, usually due to bacterial or viral infections elsewhere in body that has spread into the blood and into the CSF. Other causes of meningitis such as fungal, protozoal, or certain non-infectious etiologies are much rarer. Meningitis should be distinguished from the condition encephalitis, the latter of which is the inflammation of the brain itself.

The complications of meningitis can be severe and include neurological problems such as hearing loss, visual impairment, seizures, and learning disabilities. The heart, kidneys, and adrenal glands may also be affected.


Symptom: Headache, nausea, vomiting

Likely cause: Brain tumor.

Details: Some tumors are treatable but many tumors are malignant, leading to slow painful death. If you are experiencing these symptoms you probably have the malignant, untreatable kind.

A malignant brain tumor made up of cancerous cells may spread (metastasize) to other locations in the brain or spinal cord. It can invade and destroy healthy tissue so it cannot function properly. Malignant tumors grow the way a plant does, with "roots" inexorably invading various tissues. Or, they can shed cells that travel to distant parts of the brain. Some cancerous tumors remain localized, but you won’t be that lucky.


Hope you're feeling better soon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Not exactly funny

I was working on a fake news story about the US government outsourcing the military to foreign contractors. The idea seemed like a humorous and ironic twist on the private sector trend of "offshoring" white collar jobs to India, and almost all manufacturing to China. Once I wrote it, I was dismayed that it wasn't really funny. Why? Probably because it's so possible. Here's the article, see what you think.

* * *

US Outsources Combat Jobs

WASHINGTON, DC. Assistant Deputy Defense Secretary Byron Keane announced plans today to dramatically boost the use of foreign military contractors. The practice, known as offshoring, is increasingly common in the US private sector.

“This allows us to fight terrorism and reduce costs at the same time. We can afford more boots on the ground – it literally gives us more bang for the buck,” stated Assistant Deputy Secretary Keane.

Many of these foreign military contractors will be deployed in Iraq; positions that are increasingly difficult to fill with US soldiers. As recruitment numbers plummet, the pentagon has looked for creative ways to increase capabilities.

RedFlag Services, a Beijing based vendor, will initially fill 6200 positions. Staffed with experienced private sector troops, the RedFlag contractors will be fully equipped with state of the art combat gear, including the ZTZ-98 battle tank. Many of these contractors are former Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) veterans. Unlike the current practice of hiring civilian contractors for non-combat jobs, the new program will include frontline deployment, including limited combat operations.

The average US soldier requires about $75,000 per year in salary, training, and insurance costs. These costs are going up as the military is forced to offer incentives to boost recruitment. In contrast, a RedFlag contractor with comparable experience costs about $1500 to support. This includes an annual salary of $350. When long-term costs, such as healthcare and education are considered, the offshore program is expected to save the treasury over $3.2 billion.

“The RedFlag contractors have a winning attitude,” says Colonel Armstrong Forrest, commander of offshore forces in Baghdad. “They take on any task enthusiastically, and they never complain. The Iraqi forces could learn a lot from these guys. They [RedFlag contractors] really seem interested in learning from us.”

All contractors are required to speak good English. Because Chinese names are difficult for Americans, many of the men assume Western style names. A typical example is 25 year old artillery captain Wu Jing Hu, who goes by the name John Wayne.

Another advantage of the offshore contractors is their high level of training. Many of the men have experience interacting with civilian populations during recent unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. The RedFlag force includes nearly 100 veterans of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A discourse on magic and obsolete devices

As far as most of us are concerned, technology is magic.

Take for example the humble electronic calculator. You press buttons and out come flawlessly correct numbers – as if by magic. “Wait a minute,” you say! It’s all very simple. The keys input digits and operators, and there is a chip that does the floating point math and outputs it to an LCD. Very good! You know the names of some of those little parts, but how do they work? Face it, you have no clue.

If you have some engineering aptitude, and take some classes and study enough, you can figure out how the calculator works, in a basic way. You could never build one – not a reasonably good one. We take comfort in the fact that somewhere there are people like us that could build one. Even this is an illusion. Most technology is the product of thousands of skilled scientists, engineers, and designers, none of whom understands the entire product. Only in the collective consciousness of all these people lies the knowledge of how to actually make things.

This is no different than the magic spells in Harry Potter – Harry incants “wingardium leviosa”, and an object magically floats in the air. Press 2 and √ and the number 1.414213562 is displayed on an LCD device.

What’s the difference between magic spells and technology? Obviously, the calculator works almost every time, and the Harry Potter spell never does, no matter how many times you try it (we’re all muggles). Arthur C. Clark famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. For most people that applies to most technology.

The “user experience” of magic and technology is very similar.

The first calculator: Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine" c 1822

This hasn’t always been true. Until the 1900’s almost all technology was comprehensible to an educated person. During the 20th century, this all changed. Until the 1940’s most machines were non-electronic. You could actually see the moving parts and comprehend their function. With the advent of electrical devices, and then electronics, this changed.

The radio was probably the first device that humans built that they couldn’t comprehend on a physical level. Despite being well understood mathematically, the workings of electrons are essentially unknowable to the human brain. They are invisible, impossibly small, and interact at speeds vastly greater than human senses can grasp. Even the specialized vocabulary of the physicist is essentially, a symbolic and metaphorical description of the sub-atomic world. A magnetic field cannot be felt. A volt cannot be seen. The speed of light, (simply denoted by the letter “c”,) is a concept that we will never experience.

As a professional computer programmer I am fascinated by both the simplicity, and the complexity of mechanical technologies of the previous century. I am amazed by the ingenuity and precision that went into building these mechanical devices. Many of them, like the typewriter, mechanical calculator, and spring wound watch were truly marvels. The fact that you could actually see and understand their workings makes them even more marvelous.

The fact that they are completely, hopelessly, and permanently obsolete should not detract from our sense of wonder at their ingenuity. Maybe there is still something to learn from these ancient wonders.

Precursor to the inkjet: A 6 color printing machine c 1890

Monday, May 29, 2006

Obsolete technology I

When my neighbor Steve asked me if I wanted to go flying, I must admit I hesitated a few seconds. I’m not afraid of flying, but it’s not the safest activity either. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

Steve’s airplane is 1946 Piper Cub. The Cub looks like something the Wright Brothers, former bicycle makers, would have built. The airframe is made of aluminum tubing covered with fabric. The control systems are made of pulleys, gears, and cables. Except for the engine, this machine consists of “bicycle” technology. A skilled bycicle mechanic could build one in his garage without much trouble.

The engine is no more technologically advanced than most lawn mowers (although significantly more reliable). The simple 4 cylinder air-cooled 65 horsepower Continental engine has no muffler, no starter, and very few wires or hoses.

Inside the cockpit, things are pretty simple too. The window is hinged from the top, and it hooks onto a little wire hook under the wing. It’s a good idea to leave the window open while flying to clear the gas fumes. The instrument panel contains a rudimentary assortment of mechanical gauges. Notably missing is a fuel gauge. The fuel gauge is positioned just outside the windshield on the gas cap. The gauge is a brass wire poked through a cork which floats inside the tank. As the fuel level goes down, the height of the wire drops lower to indicate consumption.

Compare the Cub’s instrument panel to that of a modern equivalent, the Cessna Skyhawk. Note that the Cub has no built in electronics – it uses a battery powered walkie-talkie for communications with air traffic control.

At 750 pounds, the airplane has the mass of a motorcycle. At 6’2” 225 lbs, it took me a minute to get wedged into the rear seat. Luckily Steve is light, so we didn’t exceed the weight limit. We bounced across the grassy runway and were soon ready for take-off.

The little airplane seems to jump up into the sky. This is the way god intended us to fly. You feel every bump and turn and crosswind. Don’t worry, you can poke your head out the window and barf if you get airsick.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What ever happened to the potato gun?

No, not a high powered supdzooka that can launch a whole potato hundreds of feet. I'm talking about one of those little potato pop-guns I used to play with as a kid. You just poked the end into a raw potato, pointed it at you brother, and pop!

The potato gun shoots a tiny pellet of raw potato up to a range of 20 feet. Not only fun, but nutritious too! It had a low muzzle velocity so it was unlikely to put someone's eye out. You can order one from Explore! for $2.95 + shipping and handling. I especially like the cheesy old fashioned graphic on the box.

Like everything else, someone's taken the idea way too far. This model manufactured by the CLAYTON BAILEY ARMS COMPANY of Port Costa, Ca, fires a 25 cal potato pellet up to 100 feet. This isn't a piece of Chinese mass-market junk, but a hand made work of art. Expect to pay around $500.00. They also offer a full line cork guns and dueling pistols.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Picture from Mars

Cool Picture. Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Where will the next big one strike?

It seemed like nobody was ready when hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi. The risk had been known, and even predicted for years, but it wasn’t taken seriously. In the area affected by Katrina only 34% of homes had flood insurance – a sign that most people weren’t worried about the risk. The sad fact is that most of us only learn from painful experience.

The “Big One” for New Orleans was a hurricane. In California, when people talk about “the big one”, they mean an earthquake. You may be surprised to know there’s also an earthquake hotspot in the area around Charleston, South Carolina.

Figure 1. Seismic risk for South Carolina.

The “Big One” for Charleston was the Earthquake of 1886. For its time, this quake was enormously destructive. The quake took place before accurate seismographs were available, but it has been estimated at around 6.8 on the Richter scale. (Estimates range widely, from 6.5 to 7.5) Most of the buildings in the city were damaged; there was about $6 million in structure damage. That was a staggering 25% of the total property value at the time.

Although a 6.8 on the Richter scale isn’t outrageous (by California standards), the shaking of the quake was extremely intense. Shaking was felt as far away as Chicago, and buildings were damaged in Ohio. On the Modified Mercalli Scale, which measures damage, the quake was categorized as “Disastrous”. The Richter scale measures the theoretical energy of the quake, but the Mercalli scale measures actual shaking and its results. The 1886 quake produced a lot of destruction - it was literally the biggest thing to ever hit the Southeastern US in modern times

Figure 2. Damage near Goose Creek, Sourth Carolina, 1886.

Earthquakes are usually associated with tectonic boundaries, like the San Andreas Fault near San Francisco. The nearest tectonic boundary to Charleston is hundreds of miles south near Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico where the North American Plate meets the Caribbean Plate. So, why is South Carolina so prone to quakes? The short answer is that nobody knows why. Geologists speculate that this is a “weak spot” in the North American Plate.

Charleston’s biggest problem may not be shaking, but phenomena called “Liquefaction”. Liquefaction occurs when soils saturated with water are shaken. When this happens, solid land instantly turns into quicksand. As you might guess, anything built on quicksand will fall down or sink.

Figure 3. Liquifactgion in Nagita, Japan 1963.

About 2/3 of the City of Charleston is filled-in marshland. A lot of this filled-in land will instantly become quicksand during a severe earthquake. Even worse, the filled land will experience about 10 times stronger shaking than solid ground.

The good news? Well, the best news is that the “Big One” is only predicted to occur every 500 years. The likelihood of a smaller destructive earthquake is higher.

The other good news is that the South Carolina Emergency Management Division has planned for the occurrence of an 1886 severity earthquake. Well, sort of good news. The plan states: “The consequences of a large and damaging earthquake are expected to overwhelm state and local government capabilities to respond.”. Sounds familiar.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Extreme Hunters II

A few months ago I published an article about extreme hunters in the Raleigh area. This is a group of local urban professionals who hunt with primitive weapons such as rocks and clubs. They think modern guns have taken all the challenge out of hunting, and are striving for a more authentic experience. Of course, the article was entirely fictional.

But wait! It seems that I wasn't the first person who had this idea. In real life there actually is a small group of hunters who insist on using primitive weapons. They like to get up close and personal with their prey. Instead of clubs, they prefer spears and knives. Here's a sampling of what I found:
  • Hunting wild boar with spears. [here]
  • Deer hunting with an atlatl (spear thrower). [here]
  • Noodling - catching giant catfish with your bare hands. [here]
  • Hog hunting with a knife. [here]
The characters in my article were lawyers and accountants trying to get in touch with their manhood. This isn’t too far from the real Atlatl hunters, who have a certain quixotic flair. The atlatl is a throwing stick invented by Native Americans in prehistoric times. It was used for thousands of years, but was quickly abandoned with the invention of the bow and arrow. Despite being lethal in skilled hands, it’s a thoroughly ridiculous looking weapon.

Noodling is a combination of swimming and wrestling. These guys swim around in muddy lakes, reaching into caves with their bare hands in search of catfish. Once located, they grab the fish by the mouth and wrestle it ashore. Some of these catfish are gigantic and occasionally the fish wins. Noodling is just the thing for a hot summer day.

My impression of the spear and knife hunting is less favorable. To me it seems more like a disturbing redneck obsession than a sport.

Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel “"Fight Club"” had a similar experience. In the book (and movie), the protagonist discovers an underground network of "“fight clubs"”, where strangers get together and beat each other senseless. Palahniuk insists that he made the whole thing up, but soon after the movie was released people began telling him that they had been going to fight clubs for years. Most of these people were probably just lying, but it's not too far-fetched. In any case, after the movie, real fight clubs started springing up around the country.

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."” -Ecclesiastes

Sunday, May 07, 2006

ANN ARBOR, Michigan (May 2006) -- Domino’s Pizza (DPZ) announced that it is teaming up with Federal Express (FDX) to provide nationwide pizza delivery. In a move expected to revolutionize the food distribution business, the pies will be assembled on-site in FedEx’s Memphis distribution facility, and loaded directly on airplanes for next day delivery.

“The synergies of our business models are obvious,” says Domino’s Executive Vice President of Order Fulfillment, Ron La France. “We’re emerging a new infrastructure that is changing the way we orchestrate capability.”

The technical challenge of delivering fresh pizza thousands of miles is daunting. The process begins when the customer phones the service center in Bangalore India. Once an order is taken, it is forwarded to the FedEx facility in Memphis, where fresh ingredients are assembled.

Next, the pizzas move along a high-speed conveyor at nearly 550 feet per minute. The uncooked pies are routed through a 1000-degree natural gas-fired oven, where they are flash cooked in a little over twenty seconds. From the oven, the system collates and packages the pies and transports them to a waiting fleet of jet airplanes. On a good day, the whole process takes about three minutes.

After arrival in the destination city, the boxes are quickly loaded onto the familiar white FedEx delivery vans, and arrive at the customer’s doorstep just before lunchtime.

Food engineers had to develop a whole new packaging system. Traditional insulated packaging can only maintain piping hot pizzas for five to six hours – but the shipping process can take up to eight. To keep the pizzas warm, each box contains a cesium/argon insert, which warms the content’s by safe low-level radioactive decay. The inserts also have the desirable side effect of preventing food spoilage.

So far, the system has been successfully tested in Houston, Texas and Las Angeles, California. A few early problems were worked out of the system, and the company is planning to roll it out nationwide in early August.

These early problem included an unexpected demand for exotic ingredients such as tamarind, saffron, and millet. “It took us a while to figure out why people were ordering these unusual ingredients,” says Ron La France. “It turns out that they originated in the Bangalore call facility. Customers would call up and ask the phone reps ‘what would go good on that?’ Being South Indian, they would recommend local foods they were more familiar with.”

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

BEAUMONT, Texas – Research published in this month’s Journal of Agricultural Bioengineering suggests that some day tiny beef cattle may roam the ranches of Texas.

University of Beaumont geneticist Jeff Lee and his colleagues have been working hard to engineer the perfect protein source. They are combining the genetic material of Angus beef with those of laboratory mice to produce tiny beef cattle. Why make smaller cows? It’s all a matter of economics:

The average beef cow weighs between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds, and is ready for market in 14 to 16 months. That’s a long time for ranchers to tie up valuable capital. In contrast, mice reach full maturity in 5-7 weeks. More importantly, it takes 20 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of beef. Comparatively, mice gain a thrifty 1-pound for each 8 pounds of feed.

Another drawback of cattle ranching is that it takes vast tracts of land. By growing smaller animals, cattle operations could be moved to more compact facilities. Future cattle ranches would look more like chicken farms. Large warehouse sized production facilities could produce tons of beef at a fraction of the cost of a traditional ranch.

At the grocery store all this technology would result in a 75% reduction in the cost of beef. Dubbed “spamsters”, these diminutive cattle would be genetically 94% Angus beef, so they would taste like the original.

“Of course we won’t be selling 1oz steaks,” says Dr. Lee. “This beef would only be suitable for hamburger and sausage.”

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Can you say Adalimumab?

That’s right, I knew you couldn’t!

Although most new prescription drugs have snappy brand names like Viagra, Zoloft, Effexor, and Celebrex, their generic counterparts are all but unpronounceable. Drug companies spend millions on naming their products, so this can’t be an accident.

According to the FDA, drug names should use an established stem, or group of letters, that represents a specific drug class. For example, Adalimumab, the generic of Humira, uses the suffix “mab”, which is an abbreviation of “monoclonal antibody”.

If this makes so much sense, why can’t you pronounce it? Hmmm, sounds like marketing. An impossible word is just one more reason to buy the brand name instead of the less expensive generic.

There’s a pattern to the brand names too. Marketers especially like emphatic sounding letters like X, Z, C and D. They sound high-tech and easy to remember. These names seem to imply results, but they can’t go too far. The FDA won’t approve names that promise a cure. For example, the hair re-growth product “Re-Gain” had to be changed to the less suggestive “Rogaine”. (Strangely enough, Rogaine's active ingredient, minoxidil, was first identified in rat urine.)

[This article was sponsored by STIGMATOR® (bagafacine HCI).]

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Triangle Puzzle

Here's a good puzzle.

Each of the pieces is exactly the same size in each triangle. The grid is regular and to scale. Where does the "hole" come from?

Here's the answer:
The hypotenuses of the triangles have slightly different slopes. This very slight difference accounts for enough area to leave the “missing” square.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

1492 And All That

It's about time that someone wrote a decent history of America. I don't mean a scholarly well researched history that puts things in perspective and makes sense of complicated events. I don't mean an uplifting story of the birth of our great nation. And especially, I don't mean a history that has any educational value whatsoever. No, a good history would capture the random, unplanned, and inexplicable series of events that got us to where we are today.

"The world today doesn't make any sense,
why should the past?"

American history begins.

American history begins in 1492 when an Italian named Columbus, sailing a Spanish ship, discovered the Bahamas on an expedition to India. This event is known as “The discovery of America”.

There is much confusion and controversy surrounding this simple beginning. These seemingly elementary facts are disputed by a wide range of competing groups, each claiming the distinction for themselves. In this chapter we will address and dismiss each of these claims, and establish the truth of this momentous historical event.

Figure 1, Columbus discovering America: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (This quote is often incorrectly attributed to Neil Armstrong on the first lunar landing.)

In the 1480's, Christopher Columbus, an Italian cartographer and sailor, developed a plan to reach India by sailing West around the earth. Experts agreed that it wasn't a very good plan but in 1492, he convinced King Ferdinand of Spain to give him support. Columbus embarked in August and after about a month sailing, he sighted land. He made landfall on October 12, discovering a tropical paradise populated by peaceful, friendly natives. This land was probably Watling Island (a godforsaken island in the Bahamas), but Columbus was completely lost, and believed he was in India.

After discovering the Bahamas, Columbus branched out and discovered Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, and most importantly, Puerto Rico. Although not really America, most historians agree that this was close enough. Had Columbus failed to discover Puerto Rico, he also would have lost out as “discover of America” on a technicality. The honor would have gone to Juan Ponce de Leon.

How lost was Columbus?

Unlike today, in 1492 most people knew that the earth was round. European trade with China and Japan was extremely valuable, but the goods had to come thousands of miles overland by camel caravan. In addition to being expensive and being very slow, this made everything smell like camels. There had to be a better route! To sail East towards the orient, you first had to travel south around Africa, then East to India. Nobody had tried it, but it was a really long trip.

Sailors realized that if you sailed West across the Atlantic, you would eventually reach Japan. They assumed there was no substantial landmass between Europe and Asia. Anyone foolish enough to try that trip would die of thirst and starvation long before they got there. They guessed it was 10,000 to 15,000 miles across the ocean. On the other hand, by Columbus's highly inaccurate calculations, it was only 2400 miles to Japan – a reasonable journey. King Ferdinand was foolish enough to sponsor the trip, and Columbus was foolish enough to try.

When Columbus reached the Americas, he thought he'd made it all the way to India. Columbus was very, very lost. He was so lost that he thought he knew where was. What's more, Columbus never figured it out. He died thinking he had discovered the route to Asia. Columbus discovered America, and never even knew it.

Native American Claims

Figure 2 Native Americans discovering Columbus: “They look harmless, but I've got a bad feeling about this.” (Strangely enough, these words are very similar to those spoken by Luke Skywalker when he first saw the Death Star.)

At the time of their discovery, several million persons inhabited “The Americas”. At the time, these people knew exactly where they were, and did not realize the significance of being discovered. Why didn't the Native Americans discover America first? To understand this requires a careful look at how history is understood and recorded.

First we must examine the Native American's claim: that they had lived here since the beginning of time, so they are the true discoverers of this great land. Although at first glance this seems like a plausible claim, the careful historian quickly sees the weaknesses of this position. First, if the Native Americans had always been here, they would be disqualified – for you cannot discover a place you have always been. To discover something, you must first go somewhere, and the Native Americans already lived here.

Perhaps the most important argument against the Native American's claim is that they hadn’t written anything down, and therefore didn’t have any history. History itself implies the continuous methodical
recording of important public events. The difference between history and prehistory is writing things down. (This was just the first in a long series of lessons where native persons learned the importance of writing things down.)

The Norwegians Want a Piece of the Action

Figure 3 The Vikings discovering America: “Hei fremmed, hvor er ølhallen?”
(Trans: “Ahoy stranger, where's the mead hall at?”)

Could the Vikings have discovered America? The Norwegians claim that Leif Ericson’s led an expedition west around the year 1000. He claimed to discover a rich land, teeming with animals and wild grape vines. He called this new land “Vinland”. It was inhabited by savages he called “Skrælings” (further evidence that Native Americans didn’t discover America). Like Columbus, the Vikings were lost - they thought they were in Greenland. Actually, scholars believe they were actually in Newfoundland, Canada.

How do we know about this? It was passed on from Norse Sagas
[Long monotonous songs sung by Norse warriors in a drunken stupor] . The Norwegian claim can also be easily dismissed. First, the Vikings also forgot to write things down so they can’t prove it (Sagas don’t count). More importantly, nobody but a few rabid Canadians care who discovered Canada.

Other claims, hardly worth mentioning

The Chinese claim that Zheng He took a fleet across the Western Ocean around 1400 AD. The Irish claim that Saint Brendan crossed the Atlantic around 500 BCE. Other claims include the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Polynesians, and even Indians [It's interesting to note that if the (Asian) Indians had discovered America, they may have mistakenly thought it was England. If they were so smart, why didn't they write it down? [If this had happened, Native Americans would have probably been called “English” instead of “Indians”] .

America - the brand

Even though Columbus gets credit for discovering America, he messed up the name. Thinking that he had discovered India, he called his discovery the “Indies”. As anybody with marketing savvy will tell you, this was a major branding mistake. Had Columbus been on the ball, he would have proclaimed this new land “Columbia” and immediately applied for a trademark.

As things turned out, Columbus lost out to another Italian named Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci didn’t get to the America until 1499, and even then, visited South America, not the real America. Unlike the secretive Columbus, Vespucci published an entertaining (and exaggerated) account of his voyage, backdating the journey to before Columbus. This ploy paid off and won him naming rights. European mapmakers read his account and decided to call the new world “America”, instead of the more proper “Columbia”. Most historians agree we narrowly avoided the humiliation of being called “Vesupccia”, and instead acquired the proud dignified title of “America” which has served us so well throughout the years.

Ponce de Leon discovers Florida

In recognition of his deeds Columbus was made an “Admiral of the seas”, and made hereditary governor of all the new world territories. Columbus was a better explorer than he was a Governor. His attempts at colonization were unsuccessful and his treatment of the natives and colonists was brutal and incompetent. The Spanish government wasn’t very impressed with Columbus’s administrative ability, and they appointed one of his subordinates, Juan Ponce de Leon as Governor of Puerto Rico.
[Ponce de Leon was second only to Cabeza de Vaca in being the explorer with the silliest name. ]

Figure 4 Ponce de Leon discovers the fountain of youth. "Yes, it is smaller than I expected. I guess we’ll have to settle for smoother, younger looking hands.”

In 1512 Columbus’ son, Diego Columbus replaced Ponce, and he found himself unemployed. The wealthy conquistador outfitted three ships, and he headed north in 1516, searching for gold, slaves and the fountain of youth . On April 2 1516 he made landfall on the northeast coast of Florida. Ponce had sound marketing sense, and named the new land “La Florida”, or the flowery place. Despite the appealing name, his expedition to Florida was not successful on any of its three objectives. One of the first things Ponce learned was that unfit for human habitation without air-conditioning.

[The belief that the fountain of youth is in Florida persists to this very day. The discovery of air conditioning has allowing millions of senior citizens migrate from Michigan and New Jersey, continuing Ponce de Leon’s quest.]

Trade with the Native Americans

Mostly the Spanish were looking to make big bucks for minimal effort. This meant stealing gold from the Indians. The Spanish excelled at this, but the Indians soon ran out of gold, so the Spanish had to explore Central and South America for more Indians to plunder.

In addition to lots of gold, the early explorers brought back many wondrous things from the New World. Among other things, they brought home such staples as corn, potatoes, peanuts, the tomato, squash, and the chili pepper. Indeed, without the new world, Europeans would never have know the French fry, corned beef, or pizza. Another critical, but underrated discovery was the hammock. This incredible piece of technology was a critical event in maritime history – enabling sailors to sleep soundly without fear of falling out of bed.

In return, the explorers introduced the native Americans to Smallpox, Syphilis, and the plague. The native Americans had few infectious diseases to trade in return, so they introduced the Europeans to tobacco.

The riches plundered from the new world made Spain the richest nation in the world. The consequences of Columbus' journey forever changed the history of Europe, and the world. Because this is article is about “American” history, we'll skip that part.

© 2008 Raoul Rubin