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PHOTON COURIER
 
Friday, June 29, 2012  
ADIEU TO THE MINITEL

Saturday will mark the end of its 30-year run

 Some Mintel history here

 via Gongol

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open



7:05 PM

Wednesday, June 27, 2012  

RETROSUPERCOMPUTING

The comment thread on this post segued (oddly enough!)  into a discussion of  supercomputer designer Seymour Cray and a comparison of his multi-million-dollar systems with today's ordinary personal computers. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a supercomputer from almost 60 years ago--the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC), built by IBM for the US Navy and delivered in 1954, which held the computing speed record for several years.

NORC came only 10 years after the computer age was kicked off by the announcement of the Harvard-IBM Mark I (click here for an interesting contemporary magazine article on that innovation), but it was vastly faster and more powerful. NORC's arithmetic was done at the rate of about 15,000 additions or 12,000 multiplications per second, and the machine could store 3600 words (16-digit decimal numbers) with a memory cycle time of 8 microseconds. Lots of NORC information and pictures at this site. Applications included hydrodynamics, weather forecasting, logistics simulations, and the motion of celestial bodies. The hydrodynamics problems included studies of torpedo cavitation and of the earth's liquid core. (Remarks by John von Neumann at the NORC dedication, including audio, here.)

NORC's circuits used vacuum tubes--9000 of them---and the memory was electrostatic, employing a what were basically TV picture tubes with bits stored on the face as charges and continually refreshed. This technology represented the best speed/cost tradeoff for a high-end computer at the time, but it was very sensitive--apparently, a woman wearing silk stockings walking near the computer would likely cause memory errors because of the static electricity generated. (No doubt leading to much speculation about the correlation between female hotness and computer memory error rate.)

Construction of NORC cost $2.5MM, which equates to about $20MM in 2012 dollars. Some of the cost can probably be attributed to the one-of-a-kind nature of the machine and the pull-out-all-stops-and-make-it-the-fastest spirit of its design. But even a computer intended as a standard commercial product, the roughly contemporaneous IBM 701, went for about $1 million in early 1950s money.At first glance, it seems hard to believe that such a massive investment for such relatively slow and limited machines (by our present-day standards) could have made economic sense. But consider: a calculation taking 30 minutes on NORC might have required something like 30 person-years if done by human beings using the desk calculators of the time. The economics probably did make sense if the workload was appropriate; however, I bet a fair number of these early machines served more as corporate or government-agency status symbols than as paying propositions. (As a side note, I wonder if the awe generated by early computers would have been lessened had the machines not been so physically impressive--say, if they had been about the size of a modern desktop PC?)

NORC, which was in operation through 1968, has of course been surpassed by orders of magnitude by much cheaper and more compact machines. Its computational capabilities are trivial compared with those of the computer on which you are reading this. Yet, strange as it may seem, there are a lot of problems for which today's computer power is inadequate, and the frontiers of supercomputing continue to be pushed outwards.

While researching this post, I ran across several articles dealing with a particular highly-demanding supercomputer application currently being addressed by computer scientists. This is the modeling of the physical behavior of cloth, which is important both for creation of realistic animated movies and in the textiles/apparel industry. (See for example this paper.) Simulating the movement of a virtual actress's dress, as she walks down the street in a light breeze, apparently requires far more computer power than did the development of America's first hydrogen bombs.

Related post: computation and reality

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open


7:04 AM

Monday, June 25, 2012  
SKIPPING SCIENCE CLASS, YET AGAIN

In 2005, I posted skipping science class, about some disturbing trends in UK science education, and in 2008, I posted an update under the title skipping science class, continued. Concerns about the state of science education are not limited to the UK. Today, Stuart Schneiderman cites a DOE study on science education in America. He cites Forbes writer Maureen Henderson, who comments on the study:

For example, 75% of high school seniors could successfully use test strips to test water samples for the levels of four pollutants, record the data and interpret whether the results exceeded EPA standards, but only 25% of students were able to design and conduct an investigation using a simulated calorimeter and related patterns in temperature changes in two different metals to determine which metal has the higher specific heat capacity. Results were the same at the lower grade levels, where only 24% and 35% of eighth and fourth graders respectively were able to handle the more difficult experiments. Students also had difficulty in explaining how they arrived at a correct conclusion, with only 27% of twelfth graders able to both select a correct answer and explain why they did so in one section of the test. And in another section, only 11% were able to make a final recommendation that was supported by the data they had worked with in the experiment.

Note that a lot of the test questions, and I'm sure a lot of the topics covered in school "science" courses, have to do with environmental matters.

Basically, it seems that in the American government schools, as in their British equivalents, all subjects whatsoever tend to get converted into "social studies."

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

8:43 AM

Wednesday, June 20, 2012  

BOOK REVIEW: WOLF AMONG WOLVES
by Hans Fallada

Little Man, What Now?, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, impressed me enough to look up some of the other works by author Hans Fallada.  I just finished his Wolf Among Wolves,  published later than LMWN, but set in an earlier period: 1923, the time of the great Weimar inflation. It tells the story of a collapsing society through the intertwined lives of many characters, who include:

Petra Ledig, a sweet-natured girl from a rough background in Berlin, driven into prostitution by financial desperation. On impulse, she asks one of her clients to take her home with him, and he does. That man is...

Wolfgang Pagel, son of a fairly-well-off but overprotective and controlling mother--the mother being less than thrilled about his relationship with Petra. Wolf supports himself and Petra, in a very marginal way, by working as a professional gambler. One day in Berlin, Wolf meets up again with an old Army acquaintance...

Joachim von Prackwitz, who everyone calls the Rittmeister (cavalry captain). The Rittmeister married the daughter of a major landowner in East Prussia and is now managing a large farm at Neulohe under lease from his father-in-law, who cannot stand him...indeed, the father-in-law does everything he can to make the Rittmeister's life miserable, including for example scheming to increase his portion of the electric bill from the estate's shared diesel generator. (This is surely the only novel I've read in which depreciation and cost-allocation calculations come into play.) The Rittmeister was known in the Army as a brave if not terribly bright officer and a good comrade, but he is having great difficulty in dealing with the pressures of his civilian life.

Eva, the Rittmeister's well-balanced and long-suffering wife, is losing confidence in her husband and is very worried about the erratic and mysterious behavior of her daughter Violet, an attractive 15-year-old who has developed a passionate and secret crush on...

The Lieutenant, agent for a group of former military men who are plotting a putsch against the Weimar government

Mr Studmann, another Army friend of Wolf's, who has been working as front-desk manager for a hotel. He and Wolf are both invited by the Rittmeister to leave Berlin and come help with the running of the farm. Despite his total lack of agricultural experience, Studmann turns out to be a very effective manager, using the skills he developed at the hotel. Eva is drawn to Studmann, seeing in him the stability and rationality that are absent in her husband--and he is VERY attracted to her.

Raeder, a young and deeply weird servant who has an unwholesome sexual attraction toward Violet

One "character" never absent from the story is the mark, the German unit of currency. In fact, the valuation of the mark is mentioned in the very first page of the book:

This is Berlin, Georgenkirchstrasse, third courtyard, fourth floor, July 1923, at six o'clock in the morning. The dollar stands for the moment at 414,000 marks.

(By the end of the period covered in the story, the dollar-to-market conversion rate was a trillion to one.)

A few samples of the writing. Here, a description of Violet's attraction toward the Lieutenant:

He was quite different from all the men she had yet known. Even if he were an officer, he in no way resembled the officers of the Reichswehr who had asked her to dance at the balls in Ostade and Frankfurt. The latter had always treated her with extreme courtesy; she was always the "young lady" with whom they chatted airily and politely of hunting, horses, and perhaps of the harvest. In Lieutenant Fritz she had as yet discovered no politeness. He had dawdled through the woods with her, chatting away as if she were some ordinary girl; he had taken her arm and held it, and had let it go again, as if this had been no favor...Just because he thought so little of her, because his visits were so short and irregular, just because all his promises were so unreliable...just because he was never polite to her, she had succumbed to him almost without resistance. He was so different. Mystery and adventure hovered around him...Infinite fire, mysterious adventure, a wonderful darkness, in which one may be naked without shame! Poor Mamma, who has never known this! Poor Papa--so old with your white temples! For me ever new paths, ever different adventures!

continued at Chicago Boyz

3:01 PM

 
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING


Organizational ecology: the difficulties of fighting the corporate and industry lifecycles

That's all, folks: is it Wile E Coyote time for Microsoft?


A new edition of Alexis de Tocqueville's letters from America, including letters from his traveling companion Gustave de Beaumont...along with another book comparing Tocqueville's observations about the new country with those of contemporaries such as Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens. (Wonder if the author has anything to say about Fanny Kemble?)


An unrestored section of the great wall of China. (photos)


Cisco's 3-D mirror: a new way to "try on" clothes Fluidity in music and in business


American food: a resource that China badly needs


Do guilt-prone people make better leaders?


Baseball photos from the 1800s


Medieval illuminated cookies


Remarkable night photograph of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan


1:18 PM

Monday, June 18, 2012  
RESEARCH, POLITICIANS, AND POWER-SEEKING

In support of his edict banning soft drinks over 16 ounces, NYC major Bloomberg cited research done by two Cornell professors.

In this post, the professors say that Bloomberg has failed to properly understand their work.

(via Ricochet)

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

2:14 PM

Monday, June 11, 2012  
HAZARDS OF FIND & REPLACE

Some rather strange lines in a version of Tolstoy's War and Peace which was published for the Barnes & Noble device known as the Nook:

At the rare moments when the old fire did Nook in her handsome, fully developed body she was even more attractive than in former days.

Captain Tushin, having given orders to his company, sent a soldier to find a dressing station or a doctor for the cadet, and sat down by a bonfire the soldiers had Nookd on the road.

 Probable explanation here

 Pretty funny. Also a useful reminder that computers, despite all their usefulness and power, are dumb and clumsy beasts, and when not properly supervised can do things considerably more harmful than messing up some passages from Tolstoy.

 (via Five Feet of Fury)

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

8:45 AM

Saturday, June 09, 2012  
JUST BECAUSE I LIKE IT

If you're American, you surely know the song "Oh My Darling, Clementine."

Here's an interesting new version: Pretty Clementine (also called "Wishing Well"), by Nicolette Good.

Lyrics here

History of the original song, with some alternate lyrics you may not know, at Wikipedia.

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

8:07 AM

Wednesday, June 06, 2012  

REMEMBERING

Today, June 6, is the 68th anniversary of the Normandy landings. See the Wikipedia article for an overview. Arthur Seltzer, who was there, describes his experiences.

Don Sensing points out that success was by no means assured: the pivot day of history.

Two earlier Photon Courier posts: before D-day, there was Dieppe and transmission ends.

Pictures from Sarah's 1999 trip to Normandy.

Neptunus LexThe liberation of France started when each, individual man on those landing craft as the ramp came down – each paratroop in his transport when the light turned green – made the individual decision to step off with the only life he had and face the fire.

Neptunus Lex also wrote about the Battle of Midway, which took place from June 4 through June 7, 1942. See also his post from 2010 about this battle.

Bookworm attended a Battle of Midway commemoration event in 2010 and also in 2011: a sentimental service in a cynical society

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open


3:39 AM

Sunday, June 03, 2012  
"PATRIOTIC GERMANS ARE PROUD TO SHOW HOW THEY VOTE"

I've read that the above slogan was prominently displayed at polling places in Germany during elections in the immediate pre-Nazi period and/or during the "elections" which were held once Hitler had actually achieved power. (Only link I can find is the search summary screen here...see also this link, which mentions the surreptitious marking of ballots used by Nazis to identify opponents among those who did choose to vote in private.)

 I was reminded of this story in 2008, in connection with the Obama/Democratic proposal to basically eliminate the secret ballot in union elections.

I was reminded of it again earlier in 2012, when a tweet went out under the name of and with the evident approval of Barack Obama: Add your name to demand that the Koch brothers make their donors public: http://OFA.BO/mfLtZX

And I was reminded of it again yesterday, when I saw this post from Ann Althouse, who lives in Wisconsin and who received what she called "incredibly creepy mail" from something called the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund. The letter listed the names of several of Ann's neighbors, as well as her own, and by each name was information about whether the individual had voted in each of the last two elections...with a blank space for the coming election. "After the June 5th election, public records will tell everyone who voted and who didn't. Do your civil duty--vote."

Put these incidents together with the Obama's administration's decision to not prosecute what seems to have been a fairly blatant case of voter intimidation...and its use of Justice Department resources to stop states from carrying out actions to minimize vote fraud...and the pattern should be pretty clear. The "progressive" movement which is represented by Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership is not only a threat to the American economy and to America's world position and security...it is a threat to the integrity of American democracy.

Also via Instapundit, see this post on a very strange mailing being sent out under the imprimatur of Harvard University. Recipients are given a list of political contributions, including party affiliations, made by themselves and several of their neighbors. The letter claims that the information is being disseminated as part of a research project, but neither the letter nor the website to which it links is very specific about the nature of the research, the intended objectives, or how it is being funded. My email of 2 weeks ago to the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research officer who was identified on the website has not been answered.

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

9:20 AM

 
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