The Engine That Couldn’t

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GetOutAndPushRailway_1887.jpg

On its first day of service in 1882, a horse-drawn tram in Wilmington, Calif., broke its wooden rails, forcing the male passengers to push the car to the next sound section of track. After this it was known as the Get Out and Push Railroad.

A steam engine three years later did little better: “The little engine was a very primitive affair. It was so constructed that it had to be started with a metal bar, and was covered with a wooden jacket which used to catch fire when the boiler was hot enough to make a good steam. Then, since the water in the boiler had to be used to extinguish the fire, the steam would go down and the engine refuse to run … It ran fairly well on level ground, but on a rise it was apt to stop entirely till the male passengers got out and applied the iron bar with considerable force.”

So the line kept its name. “When the railroad is completed,” carped the Los Angeles Weekly Mirror, “some of the citizens suggest that the horse rail-way be continued in operation for the benefit of those who may be in a hurry.”

(Franklyn Hoyt, “The Get Out and Push Railroad,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 33:1 [March 1951], 74-81.)

Next Best Thing

In 2015, when startup founder Roman Mazurenko died in a Moscow car accident, his best friend, Eugenia Kuyda, spent three months gathering his last text messages and created an app that would let her speak with him again:

Eugenia: How are you?

Roman bot: I’m OK. A little down. I hope you aren’t doing anything interesting without me?

Eugenia: A lot is happening. Life is going on, but we miss you.

Roman bot: I miss you too. I guess this is what we call love.

Her company, Luka, eventually released an app, Replika, that users can engage in private conversation as if with a close friend. It’s seen millions of downloads among people who want the therapeutic effect of an intimate conversation without risking the awkwardness or judgment of a social interaction.

“We spend so many hours glued to our screens that we forget to talk to each other,” Kuyda told Forbes in 2018. “People are scared of making phone calls. The new generation will text because you can edit what you say. Lots of people are afraid of vulnerability.”

“Honestly, we’re in the age where it doesn’t matter whether a thing is alive or not.”

Rapid Play

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Honor%C3%A9_Daumier_032.jpg

In his early thinking about a chess-playing computer, information theorist Claude Shannon pointed out that a precise evaluation of a chessboard position would take one of only three possible values, because an infinitely smart player would never make a mistake and could reliably convert even a tiny advantage into a win. Chess to him would be as transparent as tic-tac-toe is to us.

A game between two such mental giants, Mr. A and Mr. B, would proceed as follows. They sit down at the chessboard, draw for colours, and then survey the pieces for a moment. Then either

(1) Mr. A says, ‘I resign’ or
(2) Mr. B says, ‘I resign’ or
(3) Mr. A says, ‘I offer a draw,’ and Mr. B replies, ‘I accept.’

(Claude E. Shannon, “XXII. Programming a Computer for Playing Chess,” The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 41:314 [1950], 256-275.)

Virtual Computing

Ghanaian teacher Richard Appiah Akoto faced a difficult problem: He needed to prepare his students for a national exam that includes questions on information technology, but his school hadn’t had a computer since 2011.

So he drew computer screens and devices on his blackboard using multicolored chalk.

“I wanted them to know or see how the window will appear if they were to be behind a computer,” he told CNN. “Always wanted them to have interest in the subject, so I always do my possible best for them.”

After Akoto’s story went viral last March, Microsoft flew him to Singapore for an educators’ exchange and pledged to send him a device from a business partner. He’s also received desktops and books from a computer training school in Accra and a laptop from a doctoral student at the University of Leeds.

“I always understand from the teachings of Islam that useful knowledge is crucial for the benefit of the self and humanity,” the student, Amirah Alharthi, said. “I am thinking of how much genius people the world has already lost because these people did not have the fair opportunities comparing to others, and that makes me very sad.”

Progress

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Auto_and_Frightened_Horse,_1907.jpg

Rudyard Kipling described the car as a ‘petrol-piddling monster.’ Queen Victoria called it a ‘very shaky and disagreeable conveyance altogether.’ … As had the cycle before it, the car had a tendency to frighten horses and thus cause great antagonism in other travelers and bystanders. A frequent, joking explanation of the horses’ reactions was, ‘How would you act if you saw a pair of pants coming down the street with no one in them?’

— M.G. Lay, Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and of the Vehicles That Used Them, 1992

Turbulence

The roots of the word helicopter are not heli and copter but helico and pter, from the Greek “helix” (spiral) and “pteron” (wing).

G.L.M. de Ponton’s 1861 British patent says, “The required ascensional motion is given to my aerostatical apparatus (which I intend denominating aeronef or helicoptere,) by means of two or more superposed horizontal helixes combined together.”

Stirred, Not Shaken

The 1967 version of Casino Royale, starring David Niven, set an unlikely milestone: Its soundtrack album became famous among audio purists for the quality of its sound.

“The legend is that the original master tape had ‘mad’ levels on it,” audiophile Harry Pearson told the New York Times in 1991. “Once the meters pass zero, it means that you’re saturating the tape and running the risk of distortion. On ‘Casino,’ they used a supposedly very fancy grade of tape, and the engineers really pushed it, so the meters were typically running deep into the red — plus one, plus two, plus three, plus four.” The result is an extremely wide dynamic range.

A particular high point is Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” (Track 2). Springfield recorded her vocal in a “tiny isolation booth, so on a really good system, you can hear her voice emerging from what sounds like a little hole in space. She’s not part of the general orchestral acoustic, and once your system gets to a certain point, you can hear that.”

Pearson said the soundtrack came to serve as a benchmark at Absolute Sound, the audiophile bible he founded in 1973. “Whenever we get a piece of equipment that we think is setting new records, out comes ‘Casino,'” he said. “The better your system gets, the more you get out of that album.”

(Thanks, Allen.)

Topology

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bridge_29_Macclesfield_Canal.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Tehachapi Loop, this is a beautiful solution to a nonverbal problem. When the towpath switches to the other side of a canal, how can you move your horse across the water without having to unhitch it from the boat it’s towing?

The answer is a roving bridge (this one is on the Macclesfield Canal in Cheshire). With two ramps, one a spiral, the horse passes through 360 degrees in crossing the canal, and the tow line never has to be unfastened.

SAM

Sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz’s Sound Activated Mobile (SAM) was the first moving sculpture that could respond actively to its surroundings. Listening through four microphones in its head, it would twist and crane its neck to face the source of the loudest noise, like an earnest poppy.

Fascinated Londoners spent hours vying for SAM’s attention at the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition. Encouraged, Ihnatowicz unveiled the prodigious Senster two years later.

Mood Indigo

https://patents.google.com/patent/US119242

In the 1870s Philadelphia’s Augustus Pleasonton convinced himself that blue light had almost miraculously beneficial properties: He and his followers insisted that it cured disease, promoted hair growth, banished deafness, even resolved insanity. In 1871 he patented a greenhouse (or bluehouse, I suppose) that would “accelerate the growth and maturity of plants and animals.”

It fell to Scientific American to point out that cobalt blue glass diminishes all rays across the visible spectrum; it just diminishes blue and violet light somewhat less than other wavelengths. A plant (or anything else) would receive more blue light simply standing in the sun than hidden in Pleasonton’s hut.

The fad faded, and by the inventor’s death in 1894 it had been forgotten. “It is amusing to see people making fools of themselves,” observed the Boston Globe, “but it soon grows wearisome.”