Efficiency

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

In a 1973 Scientific American article on bicycle technology, Oxford engineering lecturer S.S. Wilson showed that a cyclist “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.)

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:

Shannon’s Mouse

This is fantastic — in 1950 Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, designed a mechanical mouse that could explore an arbitrary maze, reliably find a path to the goal, remember it, and then recognize and adapt to changes. He called it Theseus. The mouse itself is only a copper-whiskered bar magnet on three wheels; it’s motivated by an electromagnet under the maze floor, driven by a pair of motors. The thinking is done by telephone relays following a topology theorem.

In 1977, when the editors of IEEE Spectrum challenged their readers to design a self-contained micromouse that could solve a maze through trial and error, Shannon took Theseus down from his attic and put him on display beside his descendants, which could now accomplish the same task using their own onboard processors. Computers were “not up to the human level yet,” he said, but “it is certainly plausible to me that in a few decades machines will be beyond humans.”

Roaming

In a short clip among the DVD extras included with Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus, a woman walks past the camera appearing to talk on a cell phone. The best explanation seems to be that she’s using a portable hearing aid, introduced by Siemens in 1924.

In 2013 the clip below appeared on YouTube, allegedly shot in 1938 and again seeming to show a woman using a cell phone. One popular explanation, that Dupont was experimenting with wireless telephones in Leominster, Massachusetts, is apparently not true, but I can’t find any plausible theories beyond that. Draw your own conclusions.

Horse Play

Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young-adult novel, features a life-size horse puppet devised by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Three actors cooperate to bring the character to life; philosophically, puppeteer Basil Jones says that Handspring aimed to offer “a real horse on stage, … a horse that is disinterested in what the humans are saying around him” and that remains “slightly unpredictable.” That’s informed by an enormous amount of study and practice — new puppeteers visit stables, watch DVDs, and study horse gaits and psychology in what Jones calls “a total immersion”:

Together with the rehearsals the puppeteers have two months of training before they see their first audience. Over scores of performances, the puppeteers become shamans of the horse. Their intuition as to what their fellow puppeteers are about to do becomes finely tuned. This triple performance is a pretty special event to watch on stage.

It seems to work. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote that “puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns,” but in this case the puppets are “truly magnificent creations.” The Guardian‘s Michael Billington agreed: “The joy of the evening … lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.”