The Clockwork Monk

In the collection of the Smithsonian Institution is this 460-year-old automaton, a robot monk who walks in a square, beats his breast in contrition, raises a rosary and crucifix to his lips, turns and nods his head, rolls his eyes, and mouths obsequies. Its origin is not clear: The story goes that when the Spanish king’s son was ailing the relics of a Franciscan monk were brought to his side, and after he recovered the king commissioned the automaton in gratitude.

But no one really knows. “Many of the earliest automata were commissioned as expressions of religious belief: models of Jesus bled, automata of Satan roared and screamed, moving tableaux of biblical scenes were quite commonplace, coming to life for festivals and holy days,” writes historian E.R. Truitt in Ben Russell’s Robots: The 500-Year Quest to Make Machines Human. “Amazingly, no fewer than three mechanical monks survive: this one … and two more in Munich and Budapest, at the Deutsches Museum and Museum of Applied Arts respectively.”

Clockwise

http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/YI/YI19170515-V65-20.pdf

When cattle buyers had trouble finding John Byron Plato’s farm, they gave up and went home. “That killed a mighty profitable bargain,” he told a reporter, which “got me thinking about rural addresses.” The buyers had left a note saying “it takes time to find your place.” Plato looked at his watch and saw that it “smiled back the answer.”

Plato’s “clock system” assigns numbers to directions — 12 is due north, 5 is southeast by south, and so on. Within each of these sectors, a location can be identified by its distance from the town center. “Thus if a man lived four miles west of his post office, his number would be 94 (nine for west and four for distance). If he lived two miles south, his number would be 62.” This could be refined further by adding one more character: 32T means “about 2.75 miles east of the post office.”

Plato claimed that this system could have led his lost cattle buyers to within a hundred yards of his house without a map or a compass. He published a series of “rural directories” using the clock system in western and central New York State in the 1920s and 1930s, but his business faded as the Depression pummeled agriculture, and the patent lapsed.

The Camden Bench

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camden_bench.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The London borough of Camden enshrined disapproval in 2012 with a concrete bench designed to deter sleeping, skateboarding, drug dealing, graffiti, and theft. Its surface discourages any activity but sitting, it contains no crevices or hiding places, its surface repels paint, and it weighs two tons.

The result has been called a “masterpiece of unpleasant design,” a “perfect anti-object” “defined far more by what it is not than what it is,” and an example of “hostile architecture” oppressive to the homeless. The designers, Factory Furniture, responded by saying, “Homelessness should never be tolerated in any society and if we start designing in to accommodate homeless then we have totally failed as a society. Close proximity to homelessness unfortunately makes us uncomfortable so perhaps it is good that we feel that and recognise homelessness as a problem rather than design to accommodate it.”

Whether it discourages skateboarders is debatable.

Efficiency

http://www.bikeboom.info/efficiency/

In a 1973 Scientific American article on bicycle technology, Oxford engineering lecturer S.S. Wilson showed that a man on a bicycle “improves his efficiency rating to No. 1 among moving creatures and machines”:

“When one compares the energy consumed in moving a certain distance as a function of body weight for a variety of animals and machines, one finds that an unaided walking man does fairly well (consuming about .75 calorie per gram per kilometer), but he is not as efficient as a horse, a salmon or a jet transport. With the aid of a bicycle, however, the man’s energy consumption for a given distance is reduced to about a fifth (roughly .15 calorie per gram per kilometer).”

(Via Simon Kuestenmacher’s Twitter feed.)

11/18/2018 UPDATE: In 1974 the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich wrote:

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.

(Thanks, Bryan.)

In Memoriam

https://www.flickr.com/photos/branestawm/16810237844
Image: Flickr

In Terry Pratchett’s 2004 novel Going Postal, a man named Robert Dearheart invents a network of semaphore towers known as the Clacks. When his son John dies while working on a Clacks tower, Robert resolves to keep his memory alive by transmitting his name perpetually through the network as a special operational signal:

GNU John Dearheart

G: Send the message onto the next Clacks Tower.

N: Do not log the message.

U: At the end of the line, return the message.

This ensures that the Clacks will transmit John’s name forever, and “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.”

When Pratchett died in March 2015, webmasters adopted the HTTP header X-Clacks-Overhead as a tribute: It silently includes “GNU Terry Pratchett” among a site’s responses, so that Pratchett’s name “will always be spoken.”

By June 2015 Netcraft reported that 84,000 websites had been configured with the header, including that of the newspaper the Guardian, resulting in terabytes of additional bandwidth per day.

(More info here and here. Thanks, Noëlle.)

The Geek Code

In 1993 Robert A. Hayden of Minnesota State University, Mankato, proposed a simple code by which self-identified geeks could inform each other about their interests, opinions, and skills in email signature blocks and Usenet messages:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bloque_de_c%C3%B3digo_geek_(1330560000).svg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

This example can be decoded to mean:

Type of Geek: Geek of Technical Writing.
Dress: Mostly “I’m usually in jeans and a t-shirt,” but it varies.
Shape: I’m of average height, I’m rounder than most.
Age: 25-29.
Computers: I’ll be first in line to get the new cybernetic interface installed into my skull.
UNIX: I have a Unix account to do my stuff in. I use Linux.
Perl: I know Perl exists, but that’s all.
Linux: I use Linux exclusively on my system. I monitor comp.os.linux.* and even answer questions sometimes.
Emacs: Emacs is too big and bloated for my tastes.
World-Wide Web: I have the latest version of Netscape, and wander the web only when there’s something specific I’m looking for.
USENET News: Usenet News? Sure, I read that once.
USENET Oracle: I refuse to have anything with that!
Kibo: I’ve read Kibo.
Microsoft Windows: I refuse to have anything with that!
OS/2: Tried it, didn’t like it.
Macintosh: Macs suck. All real geeks have a character prompt.
VMS: Unix is much better than VMS for my computing needs.
Political and Social Issues: I refuse to have anything with that!
Politics and Economic Issues: It’s ok to increase government spending, so we can help more poor people. Tax the rich! Cut the defense budget!
Cypherpunks: I am on the cypherpunks mailing list and active around Usenet. I never miss an opportunity to talk about the evils of Clipper and ITAR and the NSA. Orwell’s 1984 is more than a story, it is a warning to our’s and future generations. I’m a member of the EFF.
PGP: I don’t send or answer mail that is not encrypted, or at the very least signed. If you are reading this without decrypting it first, something is wrong. IT DIDN’T COME FROM ME!
Star Trek: It’s a damn fine TV show and is one of the only things good on television any more.
Babylon 5: I’ve seen it, I am pretty indifferent to it.
X-Files: I’ve Converted my family and watch the show when I remember. It’s really kinda fun.
Role Playing: I’ve written and published my own gaming materials.
Television: I watch some tv every day.
Books: I enjoy reading, but don’t get the time very often.
Dilbert: I read Dilbert daily, often understanding it.
DOOM!: It’s a fun, action game that is a nice diversion on a lazy afternoon.
The Geek Code: I know what the geek code is and even did up this code.
Education: Got an Associates degree.
Housing: Friends come over to visit every once in a while to talk about Geek things. There is a place for them to sit. But someday I would like to say: “Married with children – Al Bundy can sympathize.”
Relationships: I date periodically.
Sex: Male. I’ve had real, live sex.

Hayden’s description of Geek Code version 3.12 is archived here.

A Traveling Companion

https://patents.google.com/patent/US1168053A/en

In 1916 Manhattan chauffeur George Boyden patented a new way to navigate: Install a phonograph in your car to play audio recordings through a megaphone in front of the steering column. “The talking machine at the proper times will announce the directions whereby the driver will be enabled to follow a predetermined route.”

How does it know where you are? The phonograph is connected to the car’s wheels and will engage only when you’ve traveled certain predetermined distances. “For example, if it is desired to make a record to guide the driver from Chevy Chase to the Treasury Department, the record among other things would contain the directions ‘U street turn to the left,’ and knowing the distance between Chevy Chase and the corner of 18th and U, for example, [a record of this distance would be registered with the mechanism] and the desired direction spoken into the machine. From a cylinder prepared in this manner a matrix would be made for the production of permanent records.”

10/19/2018 UPDATE: A strikingly similar idea from 1971 (thanks, Alec):

A Hidden Resource

https://patents.google.com/patent/US232261A/en

I just thought this was clever: In 1880 Chicago inventor Samuel Gross proposed printing scales on the edges of a map’s reverse side, so the user could measure the distance between two points by turning up a corner.

“In this figure I have placed the scales on the two edges forming the angle at the lower right-hand corner; but it is evident that they may be placed on any one or more edges or parts thereof of the reverse side of the map, as may be preferred.”

The Sincerest Form

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tu4.jpg

The Soviet Tupolev Tu-4 strategic bomber of the 1950s was a reverse-engineered copy of the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Stalin wanted a strategic bomber, so when three B-29s were forced to land in Soviet territory in 1944, he ordered clones made, and 20 were ready by 1947, despite the engineering challenges caused by non-metric American specifications.

The Soviets revealed their coup during a Moscow parade in August 1947. When three aircraft flew overhead, Western analysts assumed they were the three captured B-29s. Then a fourth appeared.

(Thanks, Kevin.)

La

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:THXDeepNoteScore35thAnniversary.jpg

On its 35th anniversary, THX, the sound quality assurance company founded by George Lucas, released the original score of “Deep Note,” its audio trademark, which debuted at the premiere of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and is now familiar from countless films. Essentially it’s a stupendous D chord; the U.S. trademark registration reads:

The THX logo theme consists of 30 voices over seven measures, starting in a narrow range, 200 to 400 Hz, and slowly diverting to preselected pitches encompassing three octaves. The 30 voices begin at pitches between 200 Hz and 400 Hz and arrive at pre-selected pitches spanning three octaves by the fourth measure. The highest pitch is slightly detuned while there are double the number of voices of the lowest two pitches.

“I like to say that the THX sound is the most widely-recognized piece of computer-generated music in the world,” says James A. Moorer, who wrote it. “This may or may not be true, but it sounds cool.” And now that we have the score you can do this: