Source Immaterial

December 29, 2011

As we march towards 2012, I gave myself a few Christmas presents (solstice presents?) that will provide me with valuable fuel for my brain. I’ve always loved magazines, and I may have even bored you at some point (thought not on this blog) with a particularly fond childhood memory of mine in which I had just bought a computer magazine and was cooking chicken pot pies for myself (oddly, I don’t recall why my brothers or parents weren’t there) and I savored every word of the magazine (Amiga vs. Atari ST!) and every bite of the pot pies.

Anyway, the point is that I love magazines. These days I don’t get any of them in the mail though; my old school information source is delivered in a decidedly hi-tech way through my trusty iPad. Most come through an app called Zinio, though a couple are independent apps and one (the Brit mag Autosport) I download as a PDF and read in Goodreader. In every case, I get a nice little notification when a new issue has arrived (and I don’t have to worry about the postman taking his time). My current roster are old favorites like car magazine (Car & Driver, Automobile, Road & Track, Autoweek, Popular Mechanics) that are ridiculously cheap at less than $1 an issue, combined with a couple of new delights I picked up last year (NatGeo Traveler, RetroGamer). Now I’ve added a few new mags to the mix to expand my horizons a bit:

Dwell isn’t a magazine about wallowing in holiday loneliness (wouldn’t that be a big seller). Nope, it’s an architecture magazine. Its focus is on homes rather than large scale stuff (I might look for such a periodical at some point) and so far I really like it. I’ve always thought about designing and building my own home, and while I’m not sure whether that will ever happen or not, I’m sure to pick up a lot of ideas from this as I aspire to be Howard Roark.

Rhode Island Monthly is a way for me to get in touch with the state that has become my home (at least for this phase of my life). I don’t read the ProJo these days so RIM will have to keep me up to date with an admittedly light look into state issues and happenings. More importantly, it’s an inspiration for me to explore new places and restaurants.

Mental Floss is a very clever concept with sections devoted to right brain, left brain, and the type of little tidbits I find fascinating (did you know that treadmills were originally conceived as a was for prisoners to generate power to pump water or crush grain?). Seriously, this magazine is tailor-made for me – above the title of every issue is written “Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix.”

Home Theater. Okay, not exactly new territory for me here, but it was so cheap (40¢ an issue) I couldn’t resist. Since I haven’t read a magazine of this type in a couple of years, it was fun catching up on the state of the art (amazingly, the top TV of all time was from way back in early 2009, and has just now been barely surpassed). I won’t be making any purchases based on this (I’m quite happy with my current portable but impressive setup) but like with the car mags it’s an industry I find fascinating.




Simply Solstice

December 21, 2011

It’s Winter Solstice Eve! Early tomorrow (12:30 a.m. to be precise) is that magical time where our lovely planet tilts the farthest away from the sun, leaving us with a very short day (9 hours, 8 minutes, and 8 seconds). To me it’s a day of celebration because it means that the days will start getting longer again, culminating in the Summer Solstice and a magically long 15 hours of daylight. We don’t really think about how much daylight varies here (though I wrote a post that covers it a while back).

I kind of wish we celebrated the solstice as a holiday rather than Christmas, which is a hodgepodge of early Roman celebrations (which were hijacked by Christians into Natalis Domini) combined with regional winter solstice holidays and a dash of celebrating the birth of Christ (which was moved from summer to winter – not sure how they pulled that off). It’s even more silly when you think about modern Christmas, with Santa Claus (derived from Saint Nicholas and celebrated by the Dutch on Dec. 5th but later merged with Christmas) and the myriad of secular stories and commercialism contrasting with a holy day. The simplicity of celebrating the shortest day with the hope of making through a long winter would do well in its stead.


Just Chill!

December 20, 2011

Got a lot of money and nowhere to spend it? May I suggest you give immortality a shot via cryonics. Sure, the odds of someday being revived and living out a Rip Van Winkle fantasy (or better yet, Demolition Man) aren’t great but there is a chance.

Thanks to SYSK, I know a bit more about the process now. The basic idea is to remove as much water as possible (frozen water creates ice crystals, which is bad) and then filling the body with cryoprotectants (anti-freeze of a sort), and then cool in the body all the way down to 77° Kelvin (-196°C or -321°F), a state called vitrification (cooling to a solid state without freezing). Then the waiting game begins. Currently, there is no way to successfully thaw and correct whatever healthy problems a person may have had (along with the new ones created by the process). But the idea is that in the future technological and medical advances will make it possible.

Don’t be cheap though, if you choose to go cryonics. Go with one of the bigger outfits, because if the company goes under, you’ll be thawing once that electric bill stops being paid. Since the idea for cryonics was conceived in 1962, a total of about 200 people have undergone the procedure. No, Walt Disney isn’t one of them. Yes, Ted Williams is.

As a reader of this blog you are quite aware that I love podcasts. Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed In History Class are two of the primary sources of my learning. They aren’t the only podcasts to which I listen, however. The Checkered Flag podcast is a BBC radio production that previews and reviews each F1 race, with Anthony Davidson’s insights as a former driver making it a must-listen for me (and my F1 addiction). Another favorite is the Peach and Black Podcast, which consists of four Australian Prince fans reviewing his albums (about once a month). I find this one very interesting and entertaining, since they rarely agree on which songs are the best on a particular album. This is not surprising to me, since my brothers are all Prince fans to varying degrees and we’ve always had different favorites. The guys (who use pseudonyms  – MC, Player, Captain and Toejam) are a little bit younger than me and haven’t been Prince fans nearly as long (1982 in my case) but all caught the bug at some point. Their discussions are lively and funny and sometimes point out a gem that I had missed or forgotten about.

They recently reviewed “Emancipation,” which was Prince’s (well, he was still just a symbol at the time) first album released after his split with Warner Brothers, back in 1996. It was a triple-CD with exactly three hours of music spread across 36 songs. After listening to the review, I rediscovered an amazing song, “The Love We Make.”  Those who remember the Purple Rain era Prince may assume that this is a song about sex, but it isn’t. It’s a very spiritual (bordering on outright religious) song that will give you goosebumps. I’m sometimes frustrated by Prince’s lyrics, which can at times be sappy or weird, but this is one of those instances where he’s written stunningly beautiful lyrics (like the title of this blog entry) and set them to equally inspired music. On the disc it appears right after his cover of “One of Us” and in my opinion blows that very strong song away. The word genius is used way too much these days, but this is the kind of song that justifies that label. Listen to it with headphones and you may even shed a tear. MP3 file link: The Love We Make  ♬

The first time I ever used a computer was in 7th grade. I was one of the privileged few students lucky enough to have access to the school’s one computer, an Apple ][ microcomputer (that’s what we called them in those days – minicomputers were the big ones that filled up a room). The computer had a floppy disk drive (pretty exotic in those times) and one of the few floppies of commercial software we had was Apple Logo.

Logo is a programming language that allows the user to draw on the screen by giving commands that move a “turtle” cursor around. It’s kind of like a computerized Etch-a-Sketch. Drawing something accurately requires planning and thought. To draw the simple turtle on the right I used my knowledge of angles and the Pythagorean theorem. Nothing too tricky here, but creatively applying mathematics is a much better way to learn than studying notes (I just started using it with my Geometry class, but they’re used to goofing off on computers so it will be interesting). After I got the computer bug, I was very fortunate that my parents bought me (well, it was for all of us, in theory) a TRS-80 Color Computer for Christmas. On that I taught myself Microsoft Basic (Microsoft was a small company at the time) and became a skilled programmer. While I didn’t pursue a career in software (wrong college choice with a curriculum of  boring business programming courses caused me to lose the bug) the skills I learned in those formative years have translated well into every career I’ve chosen so far.

As for Logo, I decided to look it up (modern computers are such wonderful research tools). Logo was created in Cambridge, Massachusetts way back in 1967 as an educational tool. It’s name is derived from the greek logos, meaning word, since the language was focused more on working with word-like commands than simply processing numbers. The turtle used by the language was either a physical “robot” turtle wired to the computer and placed on the floor or an on-screen representation. It reached it’s peak of popularity on those Apple ][ computers that were so popular in education back in the 70s and 80s. Today it’s still used (though much more rarely) to teach logic and math. You can download a version for free (I used ACS Logo for this entry) or even use a Java version in a web browser to draw cool things like this one-line wonder:

Annnndddd…. back to 19th century Paris. Blame it on the SYMIHC podcast. Those girls love that time period, it seems. This time they were talking about criminal identification, which was surprisingly interesting. Back in the early 19th century or before, identifying a person was an inexact science to say the least. Every time someone was arrested for a crime there was no way to know if he had a prior record unless he used his real name (unlikely) or a policeman or judge remembered him from a previous encounter (easily avoided by moving to a new city). Even the advent of photography did little to catch repeat offenders and escaped criminals.

A breakthrough in criminal justice occurred in 1882 when Alphonse Bertillon created a system called anthropometry to measure the physical characteristics of criminals (hand size, arm length, ear type, etc.) and place it all on cards that were organized such that any new arrest could be cross-referenced against them. In 1884 he identified 241 multiple offenders, and from there the system spread throughout the western world. While it was a huge advance, the system was still flawed as it required a lot of skill to precisely measure the multitude of biometrics. A poor measurement would make the system ineffective. Even so, the standardization of photographic techniques (the “mugshot”) is still the system used today.

In 1892, an Argentine chief police officer named Juan Vucetich added fingerprints to Bertillon’s system, which was easier and more accurate than the system of measurements used previously. Fingerprinting, like the mugshot, is still with us today. In the 1980s DNA profiles were added to databases that make identification of a person a near certainty.

Terrible Turtles

December 2, 2011

SYMIHC is the source of today’s historical factoids. As Americans, we don’t learn much about Korea except for Korean War in the early 1950s. Other than that, we know that Kim Jong-il is a nut job in North Korea today and that Samsung and Hyundai (South Korea) are matching and beating the Japanese at their own game in electronics and automobiles.

Well, it turns out that the Koreans also did a number on the Japanese with war ships back in the late 16th century. At the time Japan was unified and ambitious, with a takeover of China Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s ultimate goal. Of course, Korea was in the way so an invasion of the peninsula was in order. On land, the powerful Japanese army quickly overran Korean forces to take control, but at sea the minuscule Korean navy was able to cause huge problems for the invaders.

Admiral Yi Sun-sin is credited with at least partially designing these turtle boats, which were just over 100 feet long and powered by oarsmen and the wind. In battle, the 50 soldiers on board fired the 26 cannons, including one that launched projectiles from the dragon head at the bow of the ship! Sometimes they’d also unleash sulfuric gas from the dragon head – totally dramatic and cool! The oarsmen got in on the fighting too, by achieving ramming speed and taking out the command ships of the opposition.

For defense, the spiked “turtle shell” was perfect against the Japanese navy, whose primary attack method was to pull alongside and board to utilize their superior hand to hand fighting skills. The shell also repelled small arms and incindiery assaults. With these ships leading the charge, Yi Sun-sin was able to cut off Japanese supply lines, forcing the Japanese army to retreat. In reality, it was the admiral’s naval genius more than the 20-40 turtle boats that was the deciding factor, though the psychological affect of these boats should not be underestimated. To this day they are a source of national pride, so they must have been quite the morale boost back then as well as being highly intimidating to the Japanese navy.