Archive for the ‘Geek’ Category

Bookity bookity bookity bookmark!

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

By way of @newsycombinator:

A whole big bunch of free NASA e-books in various formats, including Kindle and PDF.

A few titles that pique my interest:

  • Unlimited Horizons: Design and Development of the U-2
  • X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight
  • Breaking the Mishap Chain: Human Factors Lessons Learned from Aerospace Accidents and Incidents in Research, Flight Test, and Development

I’ll admit some of these are a little geeky even by my standards. It takes either a professional or a special kind of person to want to read a history of pressure suit design, or one of the Langley wind tunnel. But guess what: I am that person, and I bet some of my readers are, too.

Besides, who doesn’t love the X-15 and the U-2?

(No, really, who doesn’t? Raise your hands. No, I’m not noting your IP address…)

Recommended reading: May 7, 2017.

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

I’ve stumbled across two articles in the past couple of days that I commend to your attention. At least, if you’re as fascinated with this kind of thing as I am.

1) If you own a Patek Philippe Caliber 89 watch (I know many of my readers do: if you happen to be one of the unfortunate ones who does not, Sotheby’s is auctioning one soon), you’re going to have to get it serviced.

Why? The Caliber 89 has a unique feature (or, as high-end watch folks call it, “complication”): it will tell you what day Easter falls on each year.

It turns out that computing the date Easter falls on is simultaneously two things:

a) Relatively hard to do.

Easter is one of the “moveable feasts” of the Christian calendar; it falls on a different date every year. The reason is this: the basic rule for Easter is that it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring (that is, the first full moon after the Spring Equinox) and because both astronomical events are variable, the Easter date changes every year. (As with any calendrical irregularity, there have been various proposals over the centuries to just pick a single date, but so far nothing has stuck). For this reason, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

b) Relatively easy to do for a digital computer. I think you could probably fit a program to do this in 4K of BASIC, or even run it on a good programmable calculator.

But the Caliber 89 is a totally mechanical watch. How does it calculate the date of Easter? There’s the problem:

A method for calculating the Easter date is called a computus; is it possible to make a true mechanical computus, rather than relying on a program disk? The answer is, “sort of.” The first true mechanical computus appears to have been made not long after Gauss came up with his algorithm, and it currently resides in a place more horological enthusiasts should know about: the great astronomical clock in the cathedral at Strasbourg, in Alsace, France. There have actually been three successive astronomical clocks there since about 1354, but the most recent was completed in 1843. Designed by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué, it has a true mechanical computus – probably the first ever constructed. It’s not the only mechanical computus, but I haven’t been able to find anything in English on other computus devices (although a reprint of a review of a book on the Strasbourg computus mentions at least two other “similar” mechanisms).

Even if you are not a high-end watch person, there’s still a lot in this article that I think is interesting: mostly the discussion of how Easter calculations work, and of the Strasbourg clock (which I’d really like to see one of these days).

(Hattip: The YCombinator Twitter.)

2) I’m a fan of Stephen Hunter’s work, and one who wishes he had time to write more non-fiction. I enjoy his novels, but I also think he’s an outstanding non-fiction essayist and writer. (Mr. Hunter, if you’re out there: I’d buy a hardback collection of your shorter works.)

The most recent American Rifleman has a Hunter article that pushes several of my buttons at once: “A Battle At Barrington: The Men & The Guns”.

You may have heard of the “Battle of Barrington”, though not under that name. It is also covered in Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies, a book both Hunter and I like a lot. This was the famous shootout between agents of what became the FBI and Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face” Nelson. Gillis, his wife, and his partner John Chase were being pursued by (and shooting it out with) FBI agents when their vehicle was disabled: they were cornered by agents Samuel Cowley and Herman Hollis. In the ensuing shootout, Gillis killed Cowley and Hollis, and fled in their car: however, Gillis himself was mortally wounded by the agent’s gunfire and bled to death. (Chase and Mrs. Gillis were captured later: Chase spent 33 years in prison, and Mrs. Gillis served one year.)

The nice thing about Hunter’s article is that he addresses the firearms and tactics used by both sides. This sort of analysis is not a strong point of Burrough’s book: Hunter and his researcher actually went back to the old FBI files and turned up some new information.

The FBI’s records are full of fascinating facts about the event. For one thing: these guys weren’t just loaded for bear, they were loaded for bears, a lot of them. Found in the abandoned Model A: three bulletproof vests, five empty magazines for .38 Super automatics; two filled machine gun magazines (presumably Thompson 20 rounders); 200 rounds of loose .45 ammunition, three empty .351 magazines, three boxes of .30-’06 Sprg. soft-nose ammunition; one box of Springfield boattailed ammunition, five boxes, .45 Colt automatic ammunition, two boxes of Springfield bronze-pointed ammunition. One tan briefcase containing one loaded 100-round drum for the Thompson submachine gun; 10 boxes .22 Long Rifle; one Colt Ace .22 Long Rifle pistol and magazine. The last is a revelation: Chase had bought the M1911 variant with a lightweight .22 slide and barrel. Perhaps he and Les used it for low-cost practice on their various travels.

And, as you know, Bob, I love me some Thompsons. My one complaint about Hunter’s article, though, is that he consistently places the Miami Dade FBI shootout in 1987: it actually took place April 11, 1986.

This quote is for Karl (wink wink nudge nudge):

[Hollis] should have used his Super .38, firing prone, two handed, as that round’s velocity and straight-line trajectory could have gotten the job done, ending up center mass in Les. But he hadn’t been trained to two-handed prone shooting. In fact he hadn’t been trained to anything! The soon-to-be Bureau’s firearm training program didn’t begin until 1935!

Obit watch: March 7, 2017.

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

Robert Osborne, the Turner Classic Movies guy. I wish I had more to say about him, but I rarely have cable and thus rarely watch TCM.

Dr. Thomas Starzl, noted surgeon. Among other accomplishments, he did the first liver transplants and pioneered the use of anti-rejection drugs.

Dr. Starzl later described those early liver transplants as both a “test of endurance” and “a curious exercise in brutality.” It involved, he explained, “brutality as you’re taking the liver out, then sophistication as you put it back in and hook up all of these little bile ducts and other structures.”

It’s Baltimore, gentlemen.

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

The gods will not pay your overtime when you’re sitting on the beach.

A federal judge ordered Thursday that six Baltimore police officers be held in jail pending their trial on racketeering charges, saying no conditions of release were sufficient to ensure public safety.

There are actually seven officers who have been indicted.

Federal prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein allege that the officers, all members of an elite unit tasked with getting guns off the streets [Emphasis added – DB], robbed Baltimore residents, fabricated court documents and filed fraudulent overtime claims. Gondo also is accused in a separate case of being involved in and assisting an illegal drug organization.

According to this report, “some” of the officers were members of “the elite Gun Trace Task Force”.

As first reported by the Baltimore Sun, several of the officers were also highly praised in the October 2016 Baltimore Police newsletter in an article written by Lt. Chris O’Ree, a member of the ATF taskforce.
“I am extremely proud to showcase the work of Sergeant Wayne Jenkins and the Gun Trace Task Force,” O’Ree wrote. “Sergeant Jenkins and his team have 110 arrests for handgun violations and seized 132 illegal handguns.” He added, “I couldn’t be more proud of the strong work of this team.”

How elite were they?

In one case, four of the officers are alleged to have stolen $200,000 from a safe and bags and a watch valued at $4,000. In July 2016, three officers conspired to impersonate a federal officer in order to steal $20,000 in cash.

Also, I’m sorry, but if you are a police officer, your nickname should not be “GMoney”.

Obit watch: February 13, 2017

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Al Jarreau. NYT. A/V Club.

Raymond Smullyan, author, mathematician, and logician.

With his long white hair and beard, Professor Smullyan resembled Ian McKellen’s wizard, Gandalf, from the “Lord of the Rings” film series. He was lanky, hated exercise and loved steak and eggs. He studied Eastern religion. He told corny jokes and performed close-up magic to anyone near him. He played the piano with passion and talent into his 90s. (A career in music had been derailed by tendinitis when he was a young man.)

Quote of the day.

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Being hospitalized near death will take off the pounds, but it’s not recommended.

–Derek Lowe

Thud.

Monday, January 30th, 2017

That’s the sound of the other shoe dropping.

Remember the great Houston Astros hacking scandal of 2015? If you don’t, that’s okay. Briefly: the St. Louis Cardinals were accused of hacking into the Astros computer system and stealing information on players. Christopher Correa, the Cardinals “director of player development” pled guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 46 months in prison (plus restitution).

MLB has issued their decision on how they plan to punish the Cardinals. Good news: the Astros will get their top two draft choices, plus two million dollars.

Bad news: those draft choices are number 56 and 75 overall.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred ruled the Cardinals are “vicariously liable” for Correa’s conduct despite finding the evidence “did not establish that any Cardinals’ employee other than Mr. Correa (who was the only individual charged by the federal government) was responsible for the intrusions into the Astros’ electronic systems.”

Off the top of my head, I think I would have liked to see a more severe penalty, but I’m not sure what would have satisfied me (other than Correa’s head on a pike outside of Minute Maid Field). Correa, who “declined to answer questions or cooperate with MLB” has been placed on the “permanently ineligible” list. (Yes, that is the same list that includes Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson.)

Interesting (to me) fact that I found while looking up the list: Correa is the second person banned by Commissioner Manfred in the two years he’s had the job. The other one is Jenrry Mejía, who was a pitcher for the Mets until he tested positive for drugs “three times in less than a year”. In contrast, Bud Selig banned one person during his time as acting commissioner and commissioner (1992-2015).

Notes on film: Hidden Figures

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

The Oscar nominations are out. Once again this year, I have seen exactly one of the nominated films. And I didn’t get around to seeing it until this past Sunday, and mostly because my mother wanted to see it.

I’m going to put in a jump and talk about “Hidden Figures” a bit. Before the jump, a couple of notes:

A) As I’ve said before, my father worked for NASA during some of the same period covered by “Hidden Figures”. Specifically, he worked at what is now known as the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Some of what I’m going to say is filtered in part through my mother’s experience. (I wasn’t born for much of the time my dad worked for NASA, and am too young to remember the rest of his time there.)

B) There may be some things here that could be considered as spoilers, which is why I’m inserting the jump. The movie itself is based on historical fact that you can look up, so I’m not sure how much of what I’m about to say is really “spoilers”. (John Glenn orbited the Earth and returned safely. If that’s a spoiler for you, well, welcome to our planet, I hope you enjoy your stay here.)

(more…)

Obit watch: January 17, 2017.

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Eugene Cernan, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17 astronaut. NYT. NASA.

Hans Berliner, master chess player and prominent developer of early game playing computers (such as HiTech and BKG 9.8.)

Mr. Berliner was an expert at correspondence chess, in which moves can be sent by postcard or, more recently, over the internet. Players have days to think about each move, and games usually last months or even years. When Mr. Berliner won the Fifth World Correspondence Chess Championship, the final began on April Fools’ Day in 1965 and did not end until three years later.

Obit roundup: December 28, 2016.

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Carrie Fisher: NYT. LAT. A/V Club.

You know, I’d totally forgotten this one:

NYT obit for Vera Rubin.

NYT obit for Richard Adams.

Obit watches, firings, ocelots, and other stuff: December 27, 2016.

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

I think I’m going to wait until tomorrow to try to pull together the Carrie Fisher obits. Not that it was entirely unexpected (though I think we were all hoping for the best for her), but I feel better letting things sit for a day.

By way of Lawrence: Richard “Watership Down” Adams. A couple of pithy quotes:

The book, and a subsequent animated film in 1978, became synonymous with rabbits and at least one enterprising butcher advertised: “You’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film, now eat the cast.”

“If I saw a rabbit in my garden I’d shoot it,” he once said.

By way of my beloved sister-in-law: Vera Rubin, noted female astronomer.

Rubin’s uncovering of evidence for dark matter revealed that “there’s much more out there than we would expect based on our common-sense experience,” said James Bullock, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine. “Today, the standard interpretation is that 80% of matter is in this form that’s different than anything that is known to science. And without this dark matter, a lot of other things about the universe don’t make sense: Galaxies themselves wouldn’t exist; stars wouldn’t exist, and we would not exist.”

Rex and Rob Ryan both OUT in Buffalo.

The Bills went 1-7 this season against teams with a record better than .500, with the one victory coming against the New England Patriots, who were without suspended quarterback Tom Brady and started rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett.

He’s still due $16.5 million after compiling a 15-16 record as Bills coach, a .483 winning percentage that is actually the best of the seven head coaches (including Perry Fewell on an interim basis) who have followed Wade Phillips since the 2000 season.

Babou (either one), call your office, please.

…biologists working in Laguna Atacosa National Wildlife Refuge near Harlingen found the first known ocelot den in two decades.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the cheetah is “rapidly heading towards extinction”. While sad, this comes as no great shock to us…because, as we all know, cheetahs never win.

This is kind of cool, at least to me: a homebrew short-range transmitter that sends out time signals on the WWVB 60 KHz frequency. Why would you want to do this, other than for the challenge?

Unfortunately, I can’t get my wristwatch to receive the 60 kHz amplitude-modulated time signal in my dorm room in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Obit watch: December 9, 2016.

Friday, December 9th, 2016

John Glenn roundup: NYT. Lawrence. WP. Sweet story about Mrs. Glenn: they were married for 73 years. LAT. NASA Glenn Research Center.

(My dad worked at the Glenn Research Center a long time ago; so long ago, it wasn’t called the Glenn Research Center back then.)

Edited to add: Borepatch on Glenn. NYT obit for Greg Lake.