Tech Talk

In 1944 British graduate student John Hellins Quick published a description of the “turbo-encabulator,” a marvelously sophisticated device whose workings are understandable only by engineers:

The original machine had a base-plate of prefabulated aluminite, surmounted by a malleable logarithmic casing in such a way that the two main spurving bearings were in a direct line with the pentametric fan. The latter consisted simply of six hydrocoptic marzelvanes, so fitted to the ambifacient lunar waneshaft that side fumbling was effectively prevented. The main winding was of the normal lotus-o-delta type placed in panendermic semi-bovoid slots in the stator, every seventh conductor being connected by a nonreversible tremie pipe to the differential girdle spring on the ‘up’ end of the grammeters.

General Electric, Chrysler, and Rockwell Automation have all sung the device’s praises, even if no one can quite explain what it does. Actor Bud Haggart shot the video above in 1977 after completing an industrial training film for General Motors.

The rest of us will just have to take its wonders on faith. When Time magazine published the description in 1946, one reader wrote, “My husband says it sounds like a new motor; I say it sounds like a dictionary that has been struck by lightning.”

Overheard

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sepoy_revolt_at_Meerut.jpg

On May 10, 1857, the Indian troops of the East India Company’s army started an uprising against the British soldiers in the garrison town of Meerut.

Lord Canning, the Governor-General, first heard of the Mutiny in a curious fashion. The Lieutenant-Governor of Agra passed on to him a copy of a private telegram which had been sent by the British postmaster at Meerut before the line was cut. The postmaster’s aunt was in Agra and had planned to visit him. He wired that the cavalry had risen, houses were on fire and Europeans were being killed. ‘If aunt intend starting tomorrow evening please detain her.’ It was several days before the Governor-General of India could learn more than this of what had taken place in Meerut. Only gradually did the news of what had happened and what was happening in northern India seep out to the rest of the world.

That’s from Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, 1973. Related: On Sept. 1, 1939, English journalist Clare Hollingworth called the British embassy in Warsaw to report that Germany had invaded Poland. The secretary told her this was impossible, as Britain and Germany were still negotiating. “So I hung the telephone receiver out of the window,” she later recalled, “so he could listen to the Germans invading.” Hers was the first report that the British Foreign Office received of the invasion — later described as “the scoop of the century.”

The Disintegration Loops

In 2001 avant-garde composer William Basinski was trying to transfer some old tape loops to digital format, but he found that the original recordings had deteriorated so badly that the ferrite simply fell off the plastic backing as it passed the tape head. Intrigued, Basinski let the loops continue to cycle: the sounds grew more and more indistinct with each pass as the tape literally fell apart.

As it happened, the 9/11 attacks occurred on the morning he finished the project, and the devastation he videotaped from his rooftop seemed to sync with the new recordings. “I felt, with my experience being in New York at that time, and what I went through and what I saw my friends go through, I wanted to create an elegy,” he told NPR. “Yes, there’s that tie to 9/11. But the thing that moved me so profoundly in my studio right after this music happened was the redemptive quality. The music isn’t just decaying — it does, it dies — but the entire life and death of each of these unique melodies was recorded to another medium for eternity.”

Related: In 1969 composer Alvin Lucier recorded a paragraph of speech, then repeatedly played it back and re-recorded it, so that his voice merged gradually into a portrait of the room’s resonant frequencies.

Here’s a modern homage to Lucier using YouTube, showing the effects of ripping and uploading the same file 1,000 times:

A photo reposted to Instagram 90 times in succession:

https://petapixel.com/2015/02/11/experiment-shows-happens-repost-photo-instagram-90-times/

A video fragment transferred through 20 generations of VHS tape:

(Thanks, Matthew.)

Scoop

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luna_9_moon_surface_image.gif

In February 1966, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 landed safely on the moon and became the first spacecraft to transmit photographs of the moon seen from surface level.

The Soviets didn’t release the photos immediately, but scientists at England’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, who were observing the mission, realized that the signal format was the same as the Radiofax system that newspapers used to transmit pictures. So they just borrowed a receiver from the Daily Express, decoded the images, and published them.

The BBC observes, “It is thought that Russian scientists had deliberately fitted the probe with the standard television equipment, either to ensure that they would get the higher-quality pictures from Jodrell Bank without having the political embarrassment of asking for them, or to prevent the Soviet authorities from making political capital out of the achievement.”

(Thanks, Andrew.)

An Audio Ghost

When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, it was thought that no recordings of his voice had survived. But in 2013 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that it had a fragile wax-on-cardboard disc that Bell had made as an experiment in sound recording … and that now this could be played using optical scanning technology.

The disc is dated April 15, 1885. Bell spends most of the 4-minute recording reciting figures, but he concludes with the distinct words “Hear my voice: … Alexander … Graham … Bell.” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray wrote:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright — as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

Amazingly, scientists resurrected the voice of Bell’s father too — a man who had been born in 1819.

A Snow Dam

flateyri dam 1

The Icelandic fishing village of Flateyri was devastated when an avalanche buried 17 homes in 1995. To guard against further trouble, they built an earthen dam in the shape of an enormous A.

It worked: An avalanche struck the dam’s eastern wing in February 1999, and another struck the western wing the following March. Both were deflected harmlessly into the sea.

flateyri dam 2

Podcast Episode 142: Fingerprints and Polygraphs

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Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used.

We’ll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company’s second thoughts.

Intro:

In 1892, Bostonians realized that the architects of their new library had hidden their name in the façade.

In 1918, a California businessman built a 7,900-ton steamer out of ferrocement.

Sources for our feature on fingerprints and polygraphs:

Ken Alder, The Lie Detectors, 2007.

Jack Fincher, “Lifting ‘Latents’ Is Now Very Much a High-Tech Matter,” Smithsonian, October 1989, 201.

James O’Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, 2013.

Ian Leslie, Born Liars, 2011.

William J. Tilstone, Kathleen A. Savage, and Leigh A. Clark, Forensic Science: An Encyclopedia of History, Methods, and Techniques, 2006.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Criminal Justice: New Technologies and the Constitution, 1989.

Kenneth R. Moses et al., “Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS),” in The Fingerprint Sourcebook, Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis Study and Technology and National Institute of Justice, 2011, 1-33.

Raymond Dussault, “The Latent Potential of Latent Prints,” Government Technology, Dec. 31, 1998.

Barbara Bradley, “Fingered by the Police Computer,” Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 1988.

U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, “New Technology for Investigation, Identification, and Apprehension,” in Special Report: Criminal Justice, New Technologies, and the Constitution, May 1988.

Thanks to listener Pål Grønås Drange for suggesting the Ken Moses story.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Mirage” (accessed Feb. 17, 2017).

W.H. Lehn, “The Nova Zemlya Effect: An Arctic Mirage,” Journal of the Optical Society of America 69:5 (May 1979), 776-781.

Wikipedia, “Novaya Zemlya Effect” (accessed Feb. 17, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

If you have a moment, please go to podcastsurvey.net to take a very short anonymous survey about today’s episode.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

The Phonautograph

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phonautogram_-_Scott_1859.jpg

In 1857, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented a device for recording sound: A person spoke or sang into a barrel, causing a membrane of parchment to vibrate and a pig bristle to record a mark on a moving surface of glass or paper.

This was useful in studying the characteristics of sound, but a century and a half would pass before we had the technology to play back the recordings. In 2008, audio historians recovered Scott’s “phonautograms” from the French patent office and converted his waveforms into digital audio files.

The recording below was made on April 9, 1860. It’s the French folk song “Au clair de la lune,” recorded 28 years before Edison’s first wax cylinder.

Shimon

You know the singularity has arrived when the robots start playing marimbas. Shimon, engineer Guy Hoffman’s robot musician, doesn’t play programmed music — it improvises in ensembles with human players, communicating with a “socially expressive head” and favoring musical ideas that are unlikely to be chosen by humans, so as to lead the performance in genuinely novel directions.

“The project, therefore, aims to combine human creativity, emotion, and aesthetic judgment with algorithmic computational capability of computers, allowing human and artificial players to cooperate and build off each other’s ideas,” notes the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, Shimon’s patron. “Unlike computer- and speaker-based interactive music systems, an embodied anthropomorphic robot can create familiar, acoustically rich, and visual interactions with humans.”

More at Georgia Tech.