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December 15, 2006

Holiday and Vacation

All work and no play makes Dev a dull boy, so I'll be away on holiday and vacation until Tuesday, January 2, 2007.

Here are some things to ponder while I'm away (the following are from Clifford Pickover's WikiDumper):

• Hlade's Law states, "If you have a difficult task, give it to a lazy person; they will find an easier way to do it."

• The first recorded use of watermelon as a color name in English was in 1926. The RGB color coordinates of Watermelon are (D8424F)16, or (216, 66, 79)10. Try this in any program with a color picker. It's great for PowerPoint, but only during the summer.

• Speaking of summer, Disco Queen, Donna Summer, has sold 178 million records/CDs, one of which my children gave me for my last birthday. I don't understand why they won't let me play it when they're in my car.

• The Beard Theorem suggests that the volume of a man's Beard has a direct correlation to how radical are his Socialist views.

• It may be the holidays, but women do more than man (woman?) the kitchen. Here's a web site that presents eighty three women physicists who made important and original contributions in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

And, from Wired Magazine, some "Science Fictions."

• If you fall into quicksand, you won't be sucked under and die. You’ll only sink up to your waist.

Benjamin Franklin's kite wasn't struck by lightning. The kite picked up electricity from the air, causing an arc between Franklin’s hand and a key tied to his end of the string.

• A penny dropped from the top of a skyscraper won't kill someone. It would never pick up enough velocity.

• There isn't a "dark side of the moon" (with apologies to Pink Floyd). The entire lunar surface receives sunlight during the moon’s monthly orbit around Earth.

And, from from Biologist Sandra Schmidt of the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, sung to the tune of "Let it Snow,"

"The funding levels are frightful
But my grant is so insightful,
I hope that you'll let me know,
It's a go, it's a go, it's a go!"

And, in anticipation of the new year, the prime factors of 2007 are 3, 3 and 223.

Happy Holidays!

December 14, 2006

The Physics of Santa Claus

After learning a little physics, you start to wonder how things happen. After you learn much more physics, you begin to see different ways in which things can happen. Such is true with the existence of Santa Claus. That Santa exists is a certainty, since he is tracked on radar every Christmas by NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Still, the question remains as to how Santa is able to complete his task of bringing toys to all the good little girls and boys, all in one night.

The essential problem is transport. If Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, moved as quickly as required, the friction of air would burn them up. Well, that might be true in classical physics, but modern physics has come to Santa's rescue. There are two leading possibilities:

1) A heat shield. We already know that Santa has no problem with heat, since he climbs down chimneys with ease, so he must have a heat shielding technology. Norwegian astrophysicist Knut Jorgen Roed Odegaard says [1], "Santa obviously has an ion-shield of charged particles, held together by a magnetic field, surrounding his entire sleigh. This is how he solves the heat problem."

2) Interdimensional transport. I consider this to be the most likely mechanism. String theory supposes that "reality" is actually a collection of eleven dimensions. Santa could jump up to another dimension, take the scenic route with his sleigh, perhaps even stop to check his email while sipping a Starbucks coffee, and then pop back into our cozy four dimensional space for deliveries.

Did you know that Rudolph's nose is really white? It's redshifted because of the speed of Santa's sleigh. I hope Santa has flood insurance for his North Pole headquarters. Because of global warming, the arctic summer could be ice-free by 2040.

1. The Physics of Santa Claus (Research Council of Norway).
2. NORAD's Santa Tracking Web Site.

December 13, 2006

Rockets and Radios

When my wife was a teenager (not that many years ago!), she owned a Rocket Radio, a primitive crystal radio receiver in the shape of a rocket. These were the iPods of that era, and they had the advantage that they required no batteries. Unfortunately, you got zero reception unless you lived very close to an AM radio station. This was the same era as Project Apollo, which culminated in the Apollo 11 mission that landed men on the moon in July 1969. The Saturn V rocket that propelled men to the moon and the Rocket Radio were both inventions of the twentieth century. In fulfillment of some economic scaling law, only a few of the multi-million dollar Saturn V rockets were made, but hundreds of thousands of the one dollar Rocket Radio.

There were 5,369,387 US patents issued in the twentieth century. Some inventions, like the Polymerase chain reaction, are extremely important to our present culture. Inventions like PCR have changed the world, but these inventions have only an indirect effect on people's lives. Some consumer items, however, are to have and to hold, and these have changed the way we live in more personal ways. Recently, Wired Magazine compiled a list of "The 10 Gadgets That Changed the World."

1. RCA Model 630TS TV (1946)
2. Western Electric 500 Desk Telephone (1949)
3. Kodak Brownie 127 camera (1953)
4. Bell & Howell Director Series model 414 Zoomatic 8-mm Movie Camera (~1962)
5. Amana Radarange microwave (1967)
6. JVC HR-3300 videocassette recorder (1976)
7. Atari 2600 video computer system (1977)
8. Sony Walkman TPS-L2 portable cassette player (1979)
9. IBM 5150 personal computer (1981)
10. Motorola StarTac cell phone (1996)

Wired limited its list to the "modern" world, and Wired's modern world apparently begins in 1946. However, the Art Deco movement started around 1910, and I would call everything after that "modern." In that case, we must surely add the All American Five Radio (~1930), or one of its portable transistor children. I would add the Palm Pilot PDA (1996) to this list as a personal favorite. If we didn't limit the list to modern times, the pointy stick would probably rank as the first among gadgets.

We've been adding to the list already in the twenty-first century. The iPod will certainly make the cut, but I have my doubts about the Segway.

December 12, 2006

Simple Machines

When I first heard of simple machines, I thought they were called "simple" because they were easy to make. After all, they were discovered in antiquity, when the only available tools were "Stone knives and bearskins." There is actually a formal definition of a simple machine - a device that that requires just a single force to work. Depending on your viewpoint, there are anywhere from four to six simple machines.

• The wheel and axle
• The lever
• The inclined plane
• The pulley
• The wedge
• The screw

The first four are well established, and the last two are somewhat controversial. The wedge is seen by some as just an example of the inclined plane. The screw is considered by some to be an example of an inclined plane, also. However, the screw has the unique property of converting rotary force (torque) to linear force (thrust), so it has more of a claim to uniqueness. The simple machines can be divided into two categories of operating principle.

• The vector resolution of forces (inclined plane, wedge, and screw)
• Equilibrium of torques (wheel, lever, and pulley).

All the simple machines are useful because they have mechanical advantage; that is, they are able to trade off force and distance in the creation of work. The mechanical advantage is the ratio of the output force to the input force. As the simplest example, the machanical advantage of a lever is the ratio of its two arms. The inclined plane's mechanical advantage is the cosecant of the angle.

If you're not a mechanics chauvinist, there are other "machines" that may rate as simple. One example is the siphon, supposedly invented by the Greek, Ctesibius (285-222 BC), and popularized by Hero of Alexandria. It is likely that the siphon was known to the Egyptians from 1500 BC, since reliefs show the extraction of water from large vessels through use of siphons.

In the 1960s, there was a claim made that another simple machine had been invented. Donald F. Wilkes, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories had invented a low friction bearing called the Rolamite. The Rolamite had an order of magnitude less friction than a ball bearing assembly. Whether it qualifies as a simple machine is open to interpretation, but it is considered to be the only basic mechanical invention of the twentieth century [5].

1. Basic Machines.
2. Simple Machines (Wikipedia).
3. Donald F. Wilkes, US Pat. No. 3,452,175, "Roller-Band Devices" (June 24, 1969).
4. Norman, Carlisle. "The Amazing Rolamite --- It Opens the Door for 1000 Inventions", Popular Mechanics, (February, 1968, online version available at reference 5).
5. A very extensive (50 page) compilation of Rolamite information and articles.

December 11, 2006

All Your Base (Continued)

In the previous post , I presented the following problem [1], originally posed by Don Christiansen, the former editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine: "The square of 24 in base b equals 554 in base b. What is base b?" I promised you the answer, so here's the calculation, and here are two answers.

• (24)b = 2b + 4
• ((24)b)2 = (2b + 4)2
• (554)b = 5b2 + 5b + 4
• (2b + 4)2 = (2b + 4)(2b + 4) = 4b2 + 16b + 16
• 4b2 + 16b + 16 = 5b2 + 5b + 4
• 11b + 12 = b2
• b2 - 11b - 12 = 0
• (b - 12)(b + 1) = 0
• b = 12 or b = -1

checking for b = 12:
• (24)12 = 28
• 282 = 784
• (554)12 = (5)(144) + (5)(12) + 4 = 784

checking for b = -1:
• (24)-1 = -2 + 4 = 2
• 22 = 4
• (554)-1 = (5)(1) + (5)(-1) + 4 = 4

Christiansen, I suppose, was expecting only one answer, base 12. However, base -1 is mathematically correct, and negative number bases are discussed in the literature [2-6]. Numbers can be represented in more than one way in negative base systems. In base -2, for example.

• 111 = (1)(4) + (1)(-2) + (1)(1) = 3
• -1101 = (-1)[(1)(-8) + (1)(4) + (0)(-2) + (1)(1)] = 3

A little reflection will convince you that some problems are more easily solved in a different number system than base 10.

Saturday (12/9) was an anniversary of the birth of Grace Hopper, who had a major impact on computer programming in its formative years. She is often cited as the "Mother of COBOL," since most of that language derived from FLOW-MATIC, a language she created. She was the first person to write a compiled program, and the first person to discover an actual "bug" in a computer (a moth in a mechanical relay).Which anniversary was it? It was (64)16, (144)8, and (1100100)2.

1. Donald Christiansen, "Math... What Good Is It?," IEEE-USA Today's Engineer (December, 2006), p. 4. (Available online here)
2. Negative Base Number Systems.
3. Negative Base Numbering Systems.
4. "Negabinary" (Wikipedia).
5. Base Negative Ten Counting.
6. Negative Bases.

December 08, 2006

All your base are belong to us

The internet addicts among you will recognize the title of this blog entry. For the uninitiated, this phrase is from the English language version of the opening scene of the 1989 Japanese video game, Zero Wing. The English throughout the game is poor, and I suspect that it was a placeholder script for a better translation that was never implemented. This is something programmers do all the time. This phrase is particularly humorous, and it propagated on the internet in various incarnations. Wikipedia has a fairly complete summary of the "AYBABTU" phenomenon.

Since humans are born with ten fingers, our number system is base 10, but there are other useful number systems. Base 2 and base 16 are used extensively for computer work, since base 2 (binary) is the way computers think. Base 16 (hexadecimal) is a more readable version of binary numbers, although you need to use alphabetic characters for some numbers (A=10, etc.). In the early days of computers, base 8 (octal) was popular, since it allows representation of binary numbers using number displays that can't represent alphabetic characters, such as seven segment displays.

Donald Christensen, former editor of IEEE Spectrum, wrote an opinion piece in the recent issue of "Today's Engineer," a publication of IEEE-USA, that comments on the sorry state of math education in the US [1]. He believes that students have the ability, but they lack motivation because they don't think that mathematics is relevant to the real world. Christiansen thinks that internet, much beloved by youngsters, can serve as a tool to convey the joy of math by posing interesting math problems and puzzles. One start in this direction is GO ENGINEERING, a web site of the American Society for Engineering Education that provides resources for students and teachers in grades K-12.

Now, back to the topic of number bases. In his article, Christinansen poses the following problem, "The square of 24 in base b equals 554 in base b. What is base b?" Happily, I still remembered enough math to solve this, using paper and pencil, in under two minutes. I'll post the answer next time, but I'll leave you with the following as a starter. The number 237 is represented in base 10 as

(2)(102) + (3)(101) + (7)(100), or
(2)(b2) + (3)(b1) + (7)(b0), where b = 10.

1. Donald Christiansen, "Math... What Good Is It?", IEEE-USA Today's Engineer, December, 2006, p. 4, available online here

December 07, 2006

Water, Water, Maybe There

I was in high school when the movie, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, Byron Haskin, Director), was released. As can be expected, it was a retelling of Defoe's original story, this time set on Mars. It included a stranded astronaut from Earth (Paul Mantee), a humanoid alien "Man Friday" (Victor Lundin), Batman's Ghost (well, actually another astronaut, played by Adam "Batman" West, who died during the crash landing), and a monkey (Mona the Monkey). They survive because Martian rocks emit oxygen when heated, and there is water and vegetation on Mars in subterranean caverns.

Such a Martian environment would be ideal for astronauts, but Mars does not appear to be so hospitable. The warmest it ever gets is the freezing point of water, and places on the surface have temperatures of -140oC. There is very little atmosphere, and the atmospheric pressure is only 0.7 - 1% of Earth's pressure. That atmosphere is mostly Carbon dioxide (95.72%) with Nitrogen (2.7%) and Argon (1.6%). The atmospheric pressure is so low that water boils +10oC [1]. If free water does exist on Mars in any form, it would be a boon to exploration, since astronauts would not need to carry water to Mars. Also, water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. Some science fiction plots include crashing icy comets onto the Martian surface to provide a water supply.

Everyone has been looking for sizeable quantities of water on Mars. There is no question that Mars did have a lot of water in the past, since it's covered with deep gorges, but all this water disappeared millions of years ago. Last year, the European Space Agency Mars Express found an ice lake in the Vastitas Borealis region at Mar's far northern latitudes [2]. Since even the Mars north polar cap is free of frozen carbon dioxide for part of the year, but the ice lake remains all year, they're fairly certain it's water ice. Water ice also exits at the Mars poles, and it likely exists underground at other places. Liquid water, however, has been elusive, but it may have now been found.

Yesterday, NASA reported "compelling" evidence of a recent flow of liquid water on Mars. NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft photographed the same geologically young gullies in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2005. The gullies showed changes over that period consistent with flowing water, and the gully walls had deposits that could be frost, mud, or salt. Of course, some scientists think the evidence isn't really "compelling," and the flow may have been liquid carbon dioxide. This still leave the question of where all this carbon dioxide came from.

The title of this posting is a variation of a phrase from Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

1. Making a Splash on Mars
2. Ice lake found on the Red Planet
3. Water flowed 'recently' on Mars
4. Robinson Crusoe on Mars on the Internet Movie Database.

December 06, 2006

The Braun Tube

All of us have used a Braun Tube, but most have not realized it. A Braun Tube is the cathode ray tube (CRT) used in televisions and many computer display monitors. Because of national pride, the tube is called a Braun Tube in Germany instead of a CRT since it was invented by a German physicist, Karl Ferdinand Braun. Presently, the CRT is being replaced at a rapid rate by other display technologies that offer smaller volume, low power operation, and greater display area and resolution. Let's pay homage to the Braun Tube/CRT before it becomes extinct!

Although Braun is credited with the invention of the cathode ray tube with a moveable beam, his invention was the last in a long chain of experimental tubes [1, 2] that began with the generation of improved vacuum by Heinrich Geissler in the middle of the nineteenth century. This quickly led to the Crookes Tube and the discovery that cathode rays are deflected by a magnetic field. It took more than thirty years from Baun's invention to the introduction of the first practical television CRT by Allen B. Du Mont in 1931. I have a DuMont oscilloscope that I acquired at a hamfest in the 1960s.

The Braun Tube wasn't Braun's only claim to fame. In 1874 he discovered the rectifying action of the metal-semiconductor junction. He later applied that invention as a crystal diode rectifier, called a Cat's whisker diode, for the detection of radio waves. Braun shared the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics with Guglielmo Marconi "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy."

So, why is it called a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), and not something like an Electron Beam Tube (EBT)? Braun invented his tube in 1897, and the term "cathode ray" had been in use since 1876. The operating principle of his invention, the electron, was discovered in 1897 by J.J. Thompson, but Thompson called these particles "corpuscles." The term, "electron," from the Greek word for amber, had been coined in 1891 by George Stoney. Thompson was not willing in 1897 to connect a name associated with static electricity to his particles, so the original term, "cathode ray," stuck. Fortunately, the term "Corpuscle Ray Tube" never caught on. This illustrates another important principle - you don't need to understand your invention in order to patent it - although an understanding of its fundamental operating principle helps to claim all relevant embodiments.

1. The Cathode Ray Tube 1855 - 1896.
2. Mary Bellis, "The History of the Cathode Ray Tube."
3. Braun Tube
4. P.A. Keller, "The 100th Anniversary of the Cathode-Ray Tube," Information Display, Vol. 13, No. 10 (1997), pp. 28-32.

December 05, 2006

The World of Tomorrow

The New York World's Fair opened in 1939 with the theme, "Building The World of Tomorrow," which expressed the idea that science and technology would lead to economic prosperity and personal freedom [1]. Yes, we've had prosperity, but our personal lives seem to be evolving into the same distopia portrayed in George Lucas' first film, THX 1138. In this world of the future, people have been dehumanized to the point of being named with a letter-number code (THX 1138 is the main character), and they are controlled by an ever present police force of faceless androids. Security cameras are omnipresent, and they even monitor personal living spaces.

Those who think such technology-enabled extreme invasions of privacy can't happen here should read the report [2] that a U.S. government agency has the ability to remotely activate the microphone on a cell telephone to monitor private conversations at any location. Apparently, this trick can be done even while the cell phone is "off." This is a big step beyond a "wire tap" that records conversations between parties on a telephone line. Should we blame the government, or are the cell phone engineers complicit as well? Most engineering societies have adapted a Code of Ethics, and the Institution of Civil Engineers (UK) espouses the following,

"Members of the ICE should always be aware of their overriding responsibility to the public good. A member's obligations to the client can never override this, and members of the ICE should not enter undertakings which compromise this responsibility. The "public good" encompasses care and respect for the environment, and for humanity's cultural, historical and archaeological heritage, as well as the primary responsibility members have to protect the health and well being of present and future generations."

Remote activation of microphones has been done before. The FBI has in the past activated a microphone of the automotive OnStar system to monitor conversations in a vehicle without the passengers' knowledge. I detailed this, and other examples of technological surveilance going out of control, in a recent article [3].

How many individuals can be identified by a three letter-four digit code, such as THX 1138? That would be (263)(104), or 175,760,000. Looks like I may not make the cut.

1. The 1939-1940 New York World's Fair
2. Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache, "FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool." (ZD Net - CNET News.com)
3. D.M. Gualtieri, Technology's Assault on Privacy, Phi Kappa Phi Forum, vol. 84, no. 4. pp. 6-7 (Fall 2004). A copy of this is available by e-mail request.

December 04, 2006

Desk Set

My wife and I watched Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang, Director) last weekend. Desk Set is Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's first color movie, and we watch it every Christmas season. Desk Set is not a holiday movie, per se, but much of its activities happen during this time of year. The plot is simply this, Tracy's character is a systems engineer who wants to automate the functions of Hepburn's reference library [1]. His computer is called EMERAC, a name similar to Eckert and Mauchly's 1947 ENIAC, one of the world's first mainframe computers [2]. The employees resist, thinking that their jobs are in jeapordy, but all is well in the end. Some critics have called the movie an IBM propoganda piece, since IBM assisted in the production, and the message is that computers won't take your job.

Aside from the notion that automation is resisted by employees, the movie has other valid observations about computers. EMERAC, which looks like a Star Trek computer, flashing lights and all, is a delicate device that is prone to malfunction at the slightest misstep. It needs to be treated like a baby, and it is maintained by a permanent staff. There are some things that EMERAC could do in the 1950s that are difficult today; for example, natural language programming and accurate translation of Russian into Chinese. Also, the memory and storage requirements portrayed for EMERAC far exceed the computers of its day.

It is obvious that computers are essential to our present culture. Do computers destroy jobs, or do they create jobs? Many new media jobs have been created because of the internet. This parallels a trend caused by cable television. Where there were once just three network news anchors, one for each of the three extant television networks, there are now too many to count. There were once a handful of soap operas and game shows, but now there are hundreds. On the other hand, computers have eliminated many unskilled jobs. The jobs that remain require computer skills. My mother, who still works part-time at a retail store, operates a sophisticated point-of-sale (POS) terminal, a.k.a. "cash register." Computer science bachelor's degrees were just 0.54% of bachelor's degrees awarded in 1975, but they increased to 2.52% in 1983. There has been a decline since then, but this is result of many students opting for IT credentials, instead. Programming and algorithms, the stuff of computer science, are today just niche computer skills.

When Desk Set was released, I was nine, and my only computer knowledge was from what I saw in science fiction movies. The first time I saw a computer was when my high school math club visited Hamilton College in 1963 to see an aged IBM 709, on which I ran my first tic-tac-toe program. My first personal computer was a Z80 CPU machine with 256 bytes of memory that I designed and built myself in 1979. It used a hex keypad for data entry, and had several octal (numbers from 000 to 3778) LED displays.

1. The Information Wars: Two Cultures and the Conflict in Information Retrieval, 1945-1999
2. The Eniac Story
3. Computers and employment: The truth about e-skills

December 01, 2006

A Technologist in the White House

Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981, had a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Naval Academy, and he took post-graduate courses in nuclear physics and reactor technology at Union College in Schenectady, New York [1]. All this was preparatory to taking command of a nuclear submarine, an ambition that was thwarted by the death of his father, which forced Carter to take charge of the family business. Carter's knowledge of nuclear reactors may have served him well during the reactor accident at Three Mile Island (March 28, 1979) that happened during his presidency.

Carter followed in a long, but interrupted, line of technologists in the White House, the first of whom was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) , the third U.S. President. Jefferson was recognized as a horticulturist, paleontologist, and inventor before his presidency from 1801 to 1809. Among his many correspondents was Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the English chemist who discovered oxygen simultaneously with Antoine Lavoisier. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia near his home at Monticello. John Kennedy praised Jefferson in his remarks at a 1962 gathering of forty-nine Nobel Prize winners at the White House, when he said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

James Garfield (1831-1881), the twentieth U.S. President discovered a novel proof of the Pythagorean Theorem while a memeber of the U.S. House of Representatives. He had graduated from Williams College (Williamstown, Massachusetts) as an outstanding student. It is reported that he enjoyed all his subjects - except chemistry.

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), the thirty-first U.S. President, was trained as a mining engineer. He had a long career in zinc and gold mining before becoming Secretary of Commerce, and then President. Hoover and his wife, a geologist and Latin scholar, did the first english translation of "De Re Metallica", a book published in Latin in 1556. "De Re Metallica" was the primary information resource on mining, mineralogy, and the refining and smelting of metals from its publication to the start of the nineteenth century.

Twenty three out of the 43 U.S. Presidents were lawyers. These four are the only ones who have any claim to being technologists [3].

1. During the summer of 1967, I lived in an apartment on Eastern Avenue, a few blocks from Union College, while I worked as an engineer at a Schenectady television station.
2. Simpson's Contemporary Quotations (1988), from Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy (1962), p. 347).
3. List of United States Presidents by previous occupation (Wikipedia).