Technology

Try, Try Again

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tsar_tank.jpg

The Russians’ “tsar tank” (above) didn’t work in World War I, and their “winged tank” (below) didn’t work in World War II.

No matter. “Failure is not falling down,” runs an Asian proverb, “but refusing to get up.”

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AntonovA40.jpg

Clinton and E-Mail

Bill Clinton sent only two e-mails during his entire eight-year term in office. One was to test the system; the other was to congratulate John Glenn on his return to space.

Both are archived in Clinton’s presidential library.

What Would Darwin Say?

Robert Wallace had a noble impulse when he discovered a new species of monkey in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Rather than name the species after himself, he would auction off the naming rights to raise money for the park.

The marketers of the world are not so noble: $650,000 changed hands and the new species was named after an Internet casino. It’s officially called the “GoldenPalace.com Monkey.”

Pull Over

Uninspiring land speed records:

  • 39.24 mph, Dec. 18, 1898, Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 41.42 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
  • 43.69 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 49.93 mph, Jan. 27, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
  • 57.65 mph, March 4, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 65.79 mph, April 29, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)

Interestingly, these were all set with electric vehicles.

The Turk

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Tuerkischer_schachspieler_windisch4.jpg

People were willing to believe in a chess-playing automaton as early as 1769. That’s when Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled “The Turk,” a cloaked and turbaned robot that played over a maplewood cabinet full of clockwork. The contraption toured the courts of Europe, where it beat Benjamin Franklin and Charles Babbage, among many others.

The machine’s secret emerged only in 1854, after the automaton was destroyed in the great Philadelphia fire. The cabinet had contained a human player who followed the game by watching magnets on the board’s underside. He made his moves on a secondary board that transmitted them to the Turk.

Still, it played some good games. Here it beats the crap out of Napoleon Bonaparte, who has White:

1. e4 e5 2. Qf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ne2 Bc5 5. a3 d6 6. O-O Bg4 7. Qd3 Nh5 8. h3 Bxe2 9. Qxe2 Nf4 10. Qe1 Nd4 11. Bb3 Nxh3+ 12. Kh2 Qh4 13. g3 Nf3+ 14. Kg2 Nxe1+ 15. Rxe1 Qg4 16. d3 Bxf2 17. Rh1 Qxg3+ 18. Kf1 Bd4 19. Ke2 Qg2+ 20. Kd1 Qxh1+ 21. Kd2 Qg2+ 22. Ke1 Ng1 23. Nc3 Bxc3+ 24. bxc3 Qe2# 0-1

“IP Over Avian Carriers”

Someone make a note, in case we ever run out of power:

In 1990 the Internet Engineering Task Force proposed a way to send Internet messages by homing pigeon.

It was used — once — to transmit a message in Bergen, Norway.

Da Vinci’s Tank

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DaVinciTankAtAmboise.jpeg

One more reason not to mess with Leonardo da Vinci — he designed this armored tank at the Château d’Amboise around 1516.

Truth in Advertising

In the UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, a hexagonal nut holds the main rotor to the mast. If it were to fail in flight, the helicopter’s body would separate from its rotor.

Engineers call it the “Jesus nut.”

A Spaceborne Time Capsule

You can write a message to future generations at the KEO project. It’ll be launched on a satellite that won’t return to Earth for 50,000 years.

Even more ambitious is the LAGEOS satellite, which will re-enter our atmosphere in 8.4 million years bearing a plaque that shows the arrangement of the continents. Let’s hope our descendants still have catcher’s mitts.

High PageRanks

Web sites with a Google PageRank of 10:

And, of course, Google itself.

Luddite by Degrees

Douglas Adams’ “rules that describe our reactions to technologies”:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

Watch Your Step

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duck_of_Vaucanson.jpg

Vaucanson’s Shitting Duck was one of the more unsavory products of the French Enlightenment.

When it was unveiled by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, thousands watched the “canard digérateur” stretch its neck to eat grain from a hand. The food then dissolved, “the matter digested in the stomach being conducted by tubes, as in an animal by its bowels, into the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to be released.” These inner workings were all proudly displayed, “though some ladies preferred to see them decently covered.”

Why make fake duck shit when the world is so well supplied with the real thing? It was part of the Enlightenment’s transition from a naturalistic to a mechanical worldview. Suddenly a duck was not a God-given miracle but a machine made of meat, and complex automatons carried the promise of mechanized labor, stirring a cultural revolution.

Goethe mentioned Vaucanson’s automata in his diary, and Sir David Brewster called the duck “perhaps the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever made.” Sadly, the whole thing was a fake: The droppings were prefabricated and hidden in a separate compartment. Back to the drawing board.

Why Is a Manhole Cover Round?

Actual questions asked in Microsoft job interviews:

  • How are M&Ms made?
  • Suppose you had eight billiard balls, and one of them was slightly heavier, but the only way to tell was by putting it on a scale against another. What’s the fewest number of times you’d have to use the scale to find the heavier ball?
  • Why do you want to work at Microsoft?
  • One train leaves Los Angeles at 15 mph heading for New York. Another train leaves from New York at 20 mph heading for Los Angeles on the same track. If a bird, flying at 25 mph, leaves from Los Angeles at the same time as the train and flies back and forth between the two trains until they collide, how far will the bird have traveled?
  • How many gas stations are there in the USA?
  • You’ve got someone working for you for seven days and a gold bar to pay them. The gold bar is segmented into seven connected pieces. You must give them a piece of gold at the end of every day. If you are only allowed to make two breaks in the gold bar, how do you pay your worker?
  • The interviewer hands you a black pen and says nothing but “This pen is red.”
  • Pairs of primes separated by a single number are called prime pairs. Examples are 17 and 19. Prove that the number between a prime pair is always divisible by 6 (assuming both numbers in the pair are greater than 6). Now prove that there are no “prime triples.”

At the end they ask, “What was the hardest question asked of you today?” My answer: “Why do you want to work at Microsoft?”

Oldest Domains

The 10 oldest currently registered dot-com domains:

  1. symbolics.com (registered 3/15/85)
  2. bbn.com (4/24/85)
  3. think.com (5/24/85)
  4. mcc.com (7/11/85)
  5. dec.com (9/30/85 )
  6. northrop.com (11/7/85)
  7. xerox.com (1/9/86)
  8. sri.com (1/17/86)
  9. hp.com (3/3/86)
  10. bellcore.com (3/5/86)

Hall of Technical Documentation Weirdness

From the Hall of Technical Documentation Weirdness:

http://www.darrenbarefoot.com/hall/

“Wear a bad sweater dress, suffer the consequences.”

Dear Prudence

At Future Me you can send e-mail to your future self — and read what others have sent:

I hope you’re happy now. I hope you have a Valentine this year. I know you didn’t last year. I hope you’ve done something positive with your life, but that’s unlikely. You’re ugly. Everyone hates ugly people. You’ll never get laid. You’ll never have another girlfriend. Girls hate ugly people. (written Sun Feb 13, 2005, to be delivered Tue Feb 14, 2006)

165 University Avenue

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:165_University_Ave.%2C_Palo_Alto%2C_California.JPG

It’s just an ordinary office in Palo Alto, but it’s going to need some extra space for plaques. This one building, 165 University Avenue, has served as the incubator for Logitech, Google, PayPal, and Danger Research, makers of the Danger Hiptop handheld device.

That’s even more surprising given the building’s small size. The first floor is occupied by storefronts, and the upper story is only 5,000 square feet, usually divided among three companies. The tenants are almost stepping on each other: Google left behind a sign with its logo, which Paypal then left in place for the next tenant, Danger.

What accounts for so many huge successes in such a small space? It’s probably mostly due to the proximity to Stanford, but don’t rule out owner Rahim Amidi, who runs a small company that provides early funding to tech companies. Apparently Amidi has a good eye: Of the 20 companies in which he’s invested, two have gone public and only two have failed. “If you know someone who is the next Danger or Google or PayPal,” he says, “let me know.”

Auguries

In 1900 the Ladies Home Journal made 29 predictions about the year 2000. Sample:

There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic. They will be maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations. Some will transport men and goods. Others will be used by scientists making observations at great heights above the earth.

These prophecies reveal as much about the nature of science fiction as about the nature of science. They’re often utopian, or naive extrapolations of existing knowledge. And change is accelerating. I’m sure the world of 2100 is literally unimaginable to us today. It’s not even worth trying.

Thank You for Not Littering

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtml

Even the pristine hinterlands aren’t pristine anymore. In the early 1990s, British zoologist Tim Benton took a walk along a mile of shoreline on Ducie Island, a speck of land 4,970 miles east of Australia. Here’s what he found:

  • 268 unidentifiable pieces of plastic
  • 171 glass bottles
  • 74 bottle tops
  • 71 plastic bottles
  • 67 small buoys
  • 66 buoy fragments
  • 46 large buoys
  • 44 pieces of rope
  • 29 segments of plastic pipe
  • 25 shoes
  • 18 jars
  • 14 crates
  • 8 pieces of copper sheeting
  • 7 aerosol cans
  • 7 food and drink cans
  • 6 fluorescent tubes
  • 6 light bulbs
  • 4 jerry cans
  • 3 cigarette lighters
  • 2 pen tops
  • 2 dolls’ heads
  • 2 gloves (a pair)
  • 1 asthma inhaler
  • 1 construction worker’s hat
  • 1 football (punctured)
  • 1 glue syringe
  • 1 truck tire
  • 1 plastic coat hanger
  • 1 plastic foot mat
  • 1 plastic skittle
  • 1 small gas cylinder
  • 1 tea strainer
  • 1 tinned meat pie
  • 1 toy soldier

And “0.5 toy airplane.” That’s 953 items of debris altogether, on an island of 2.5 square miles, in the least populous country in the world.

Ransom Is As Ransom Does

http://contactsheet.org/junk/ransom.html

Contact Sheet takes the drudgery out of ransom notes.

QWERTYUIOP

The longest word you can type with your left hand is STEWARDESSES.

With the right, it’s a tie: LOLLIPOP and MONOPOLY.

Heady

http://www.doctormacro.com/index.htmlDoctor Macro has high-quality images of classic films and their stars, mostly from the 1940s and earlier. This one is a publicity still of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born star of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah.

Lamarr is an object lesson in the price of beauty. She had quite a good technical education, and actually patented a device that made radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect. But the world saw only her face: She had to drug her obsessive husband to escape to London, and then Hollywood saddled her with demeaning epithets like “the most beautiful girl in films” and “the Laurence Olivier of orgasm.” When she tried to join the National Inventors Council, she was told she could better help the war effort by selling war bonds.

In the end she went through five more husbands before she passed away in 2000; if she was bitter at her fame, it was certainly understandable. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Language!

One downside of open-source software is the amount of profanity in the programmers’ comments. Vidar Holen tracks the number of swear words in the Linux kernel: At last count there were 139 craps, 101 shits, 61 fucks, 16 bastards … and 110 penguins.

DIY

http://www.mrpicassohead.com/create.htmlSteven Wright used to say, “I’ve been doing a lot of abstract painting lately, extremely abstract. No brush, no paint, no canvas. I just think about it.”

With Mr. Picassohead you can make a Cubist portrait in about 60 seconds. I spent a little longer on this one, pretending to get the composition right, but it’s hard to go wrong with drag-and-drop noses.

Even simpler is the Mondrian Machine — even a dead guy could produce a neoplasticist masterwork if you clicked the mouse for him.

I suppose the masters wouldn’t approve of these pushbutton knockoffs; Picasso seemed to take a dim view of technology in general. “Computers are useless,” he once said. “They can only give you answers.”

Of course, if you have real talent, machines can be a useful tool, too. Art.com’s artPad is a lot easier to use than real brushes and paints, and the gallery has some decent abstracts.