Archive for the ‘Geek’ Category

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.

Obit watch: November 19, 2016.

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Dr. Denton Cooley, former UT basketball player and one of the greatest surgeons ever.

Actually, they can read your poker face.

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Or at least your cards.

This is a presentation that I overlooked from DEFCON 24, but the authors have now been blogging.

For somewhere between $1,300 and $5,000, you can buy a device that helps you cheat at poker.

The technology is quite interesting. It isn’t just “disguised” as a phone: the device is actually a fully functional Android phone, with a custom ROM and app that controls the cheating portion.

Ironically, there is a hardcoded backdoor password in the app, which makes this security measure pointless if you know the backdoor password.

How does it work? Hidden camera, concealed infrared LEDs, and…

What makes the whole thing work is the use of a special deck in which the four edges of each card are marked with IR-absorbing ink. As a result, when this marked deck is illuminated by the IR LEDs, the spots of ink absorb the IR, creating a sequence of black spots…
The sequence of black spots created by the IR illumination, illustrated in the photo above, is read remotely by the cheating device to infer a card’s suit and value. You can think of those markings as invisible barcodes.

So yes, you do need to slip in a marked deck. But the people who will sell you the phone will also sell you pre-marked decks, which are designed to look like they haven’t been messed with. And apparently the phone will pair with Bluetooth based audio and haptic feedback devices, so you don’t even have to be looking at the display.

And yes, because it is based on marked cards, it will work with card games other than poker, too. (High-end bridge cheating? Chris Christie, call your office, please. Sorry, little joke there.)

The post that’s up now is just the first one in a promised series: I’ll try to link to the other ones as they go up.

Obit watch: September 23, 2016.

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

The NYT had an obit the other day for Deborah S. Jin, who died way too young (47).

She was not someone I knew personally, or had ever met, but she sounds like an interesting person who I would have enjoyed talking to. She won a MacArthur fellowship in 2003; her specialty was ultra-low temperature physics. Ultra-low.

Dr. Cornell and Carl E. Wieman, then a physics professor at the University of Colorado, had recently succeeded in cooling a gas of rubidium atoms to less than one-millionth of a degree above absolute zero, at which matter comes to an almost complete stop. The individual atoms melded together, acting as a single coherent particle.

This is what is known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

The rubidium atoms in Dr. Cornell and Dr. Wieman’s experiment acted like bosons — a fundamental class of particles named after Professor Bose — which cozy up to each other to form the condensate. Dr. Jin wanted to do a similar experiment with fermions, the other class of fundamental particles (named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi). Fermions, which are inherently antisocial, are loath to meld together like bosons, but they can pair up and, coupled together, act like bosons.
Dr. Jin succeeded in making what she called a fermionic condensate in 2004.

After creating fermionic condensate, Dr. Jin began collaborating with Jun Ye of JILA to move beyond atoms and study ultracold molecules. That involved cooling two types of atoms and then finding a way to bring them close enough to bond, without the atoms heating up from the energy of the collision.
Lasers and magnetic fields carefully braked and steered the atoms, siphoning off energy as they bound together into molecules. That achievement has opened up a new field of research into chemical reactions: Scientists can now start to study quantum effects that are obscured at higher temperatures.

Also among the dead: John D. Loudermilk, noted country singer and songwriter.

Random notes and a whole bunch of obits: September 19, 2016.

Monday, September 19th, 2016

I didn’t have much to say about the Mew York attack because:

1) I was busy Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday.
b) It was an emerging situation that I don’t think blog posts could have done justice to.
III) I didn’t have anything to add.

I still don’t have much to add (except that I went “Holy s–t!” when I read about this morning’s shootout), but I did think this was kind of interesting: the NYT on the finding of the second device and taking it away in a “total containment vessel”:

The total containment vessel is essentially an inside-out diving vessel, Lt. Mark Torre, the commanding officer of the department’s bomb squad, said in an interview in July. “Instead of keeping the pressure out and keeping you alive in five fathoms of water, it keeps the pressure in,” he explained. Should a bomb explode inside, tiny vents allow pressure to escape. “It sounds like a hammer hitting a piece of steel,” he said.

I don’t remember if the APD has one (or even if we talked about that during the bomb squad presentation) but I’ll try to ask next time around. I keep thinking I should do a post on the APD bomb squad, bomb squads in general, and the weirdness thereof. (Did you know: you can’t just have a bomb squad? Even if you’re a police force. In some cases, even if you’re a major metropolitan police force, as opposed to East Podunk that has six officers and makes their entire budget off of catching speeders where the limit drops from 70 MPH to 25 MPH. Nope, no bomb squad for you.)

I made note of most of the big obits over the weekend, but there are quite a few others that I think are worth observing and commenting on.

NYT obit for W.P. Kinsella.

Charmian Carr, who was the eldest von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”, was in “Evening Primrose” with Anthony Perkins…and that was pretty much it. No snark intended, but I bring this up because: I keep thinking about a new series spotlighting actors and actresses (but most of the ones I’ve found so far are actresses) who had very short careers – like one, maybe two, at most a small handful of credits – and then left Hollywood for whatever reason. I’m thinking the first entry may be sometime in October.

James Stacy, TV actor. He was in a series called “Lancer” that ran for three years and which I have no memory of. Not long after “Lancer” ended, he was hit by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle: Mr. Stacy lost a leg and an arm, and his passenger was killed. He kept working in what the NYT describes as “specialized” roles, though his career was interrupted by a suicide attempt and prison time for child molestation.

Howard E. Butt Jr.. oldest son of the founder of the HEB grocery chain. HEB is huge in this part of the country, and Mr. Butt, Jr. was in a position to take it over. Except…

But Mr. Butt, a Southern Baptist, who as a college student and lay minister had led a Christian youth revival movement, wrestled with the dual pressures of the business and his spiritual pursuits. That struggle led to severe depression, which he later discussed openly.

He ended up turning leadership of the chain over to his brother, ran the family foundation, and continued his ministry.

At the same time, he continued to encourage the evangelical movement to engage other Christians, even those unaffiliated with a particular church. In 2000, he began giving a one-minute radio homily, a segment he titled “The High Calling of Our Daily Life,” which highlighted the role that faith has played in the successful careers and personal lives of ordinary people. His homilies were carried on 3,000 stations in every state, reaching millions of listeners.

I used to catch this on KLBJ-AM when I was driving to work at Dell and still listened to the radio.

Duane Graveline, who I’d never heard of before. And neither had my mother, who was an adult during this time. Dr. Graveline was an astronaut:

With much fanfare, the space agency named Dr. Graveline one of six new “scientist-astronauts” on June 26, 1965. The group included two physicians, two university teachers, a research physicist and a geologist, Harrison H. Schmitt, who would later walk on the moon and become a United States senator.

He was in the program for about two months. A month in, his wife announced she was divorcing him. Shortly after that, he “resigned”:

In his memoir, Donald K. Slayton, one of the original seven astronauts and a longtime NASA official, said: “The program didn’t need a scandal. A messy divorce meant a quick ticket back to wherever you came from — not because we were trying to enforce morality, but because it would detract from the job.”

I don’t recall Dr. Graveline being mentioned at all in any of the histories of the space program that I’ve read (and I’ve read several). It sounds like he had some issues: he was married a total of six times and lost his medical license twice. The first time, it was suspended for two years after “a large number” of Demerol went missing. The second time, it was revoked permanently “over allegations that he had sexually abused children” (though not, apparently, ones that were patients of his).

C. Martin Croker, animator and voice actor. I was most familiar with him as the voices of Zorak and Moltar on “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”. I’d include a clip here, but the one I want to use is actually on the A/V Club page. And: according to the A/V Club, most of the “Space Ghost” episodes are now up for free streaming on the Adult Swim website.

Don Buchla, one of the early electronic music innovators. I’d never heard of him (perhaps because Bob Moog got all the press). I’ll try to remember to ask Todd next time I see him if he was familiar with Mr. Buchla’s work.

Mr. Buchala and Mr. Moog were contemporaries:

In the early ’60s, the better-known Robert Moog, who died in 2005, and Mr. Buchla arrived independently at the idea of the voltage-controlled modular synthesizer: an instrument assembled from various modules that controlled one another’s voltages to generate and shape sounds. Voltages could control pitch, volume, attack, timbre, speed and other parameters, interacting in complex ways.

Part of the reason Mr. Moog may have gotten more press was that he put keyboards on his machines. Mr. Buchla “wanted instruments that were not necessarily tied to Western scales or existing keyboard techniques. To encourage unconventional thinking, his early instruments deliberately omitted a keyboard.”

More:

Mr. Buchla’s instruments had modules with more colorful names, like Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, Quad Dynamics Manager and, for his random-voltage noise generator, Source of Uncertainty.

Damn. I want a “Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator”.

In 1965, with $500 from a Rockefeller Foundation grant made to the Tape Music Center, the composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender commissioned Mr. Buchla to build his first voltage-controlled instrument, the original Buchla Box.
It included a module that would transform both avant-garde and popular music. Called a sequencer, it vastly expanded the concept and functionality of a tape loop by generating and repeating a chosen series of voltages, enabling it to control a recurring melody, a rhythm track or other musical elements. It would become an essential tool of electronic dance music.

Bookmarks.

Saturday, September 17th, 2016

Two things I found on the YCombinator Twitter feed that I want to bookmark:

“JavaScript Systems Music”. I’m not really good at music in general, nor am I the audio guy of my group of friends (Hi, Todd!). But I am kind of generally interested in computer audio, and the subtitle of this one sucked me in: “Learning Web Audio by Recreating The Works of Steve Reich and Brian Eno”. Yes, you can do in JavaScript what Steve Reich did with tape loops in 1965.

To say I actually enjoy listening to this piece would probably be stretching it. It wouldn’t be among the records I’d take with me on a desert island. But it is certainly fascinating and kind of hypnotic too. If you allow it to, it does evoke a certain kind of mental atmosphere.

I like “It’s Gonna Rain”, but, yeah, this.

YComb also linked to an article here, but I actually find the whole site interesting and want to bookmark it: Gary McGath’s “Mad File Format Science”. Or everything you ever wanted to know about file formats, identifying them, and recovering data from them.

As you know, Bob, I’m not a “Star Trek” fan, but I did find this interesting:

Some time after his death in 1991, Roddenberry’s estate discovered almost 200 floppies of his. They went to a company called DriveSavers Data Recovery, which took years to recover the documents due to the unusual challenges.

The floppies were written on CP/M systems custom built for Roddenberry with special disk drivers.

“DriveSavers took three months to reverse engineer the disk format.”

Anyway, I want to spend more time exploring this site. I’m also tempted to spring for his udemy course: $20, open-source tools, and hey! I can actually make a case that it is job related!

Things you may have wondered about. (#5 in a series)

Saturday, September 17th, 2016

Somebody asked me this question this morning, and I thought the answer was interesting enough to make for a post in this department:

What was the name of Pavlov’s dog?

Turns out “Pavlov’s dog” is actually sort of a misnomer: good old Ivan had a bunch of dogs. I’ve seen 37 in one source, and 40 in another.

But did they have names? Yes.

Eleven years ago, I began a scientific mission with a trip to Russia, to find the names of Pavlov’s dogs. My intention was to name Drosophila memory mutants after the dogs.

This is a pretty cool article that I commend to your attention (especially for the photo of the author wearing Ivan’s old top hot).

The Quora article (with appropriate citations) lists the names of all forty known dogs, Just in case you’re looking for a good name for your new puppy,

Speaking of animal behavior, I’ve been wanting to link to this, and it seems like here is a good place for it. There once was a scientist named John Bumpass Calhoun, whp specialized in studying the behavior of rats and mice.

By 1954, he was working under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health, which gave him whole rooms to build his mousetopias. Like a rodent real estate developer, he incorporated ever-better amenities: climbable walls, food hoppers that could serve two dozen mice at once, lodging he described as “walk-up one-room apartments.”

His ultimate experiment, Universe 25, began in 1968 with eight mice.

The mice themselves were bright and healthy, hand-picked from the institute’s breeding stock. They were given the run of the place, which had everything they might need: food, water, climate control, hundreds of nesting boxes to choose from, and a lush floor of shredded paper and ground corn cob.

The population grew to 620 in about a year.

Then, as always, things took a turn. Such rapid growth put too much pressure on the mouse way of life. As new generations reached adulthood, many couldn’t find mates, or places in the social order—the mouse equivalent of a spouse and a job. Spinster females retreated to high-up nesting boxes, where they lived alone, far from the family neighborhoods. Washed-up males gathered in the center of the Universe, near the food, where they fretted, languished, and attacked each other. Meanwhile, overextended mouse moms and dads began moving nests constantly to avoid their unsavory neighbors. They also took their stress out on their babies, kicking them out of the nest too early, or even losing them during moves.

The last mouse was born in May of 1970.

And by the way, there’s also a literary tie to this story, but you’ll have to click through for that; I won’t spoil it here.

Obit watch: September 12, 2016.

Monday, September 12th, 2016

Bobby Chacon is dead at the age of 64.

His death was confirmed by the Riverside County coroner and attributed to a fall while he was being treated for dementia, which had been linked to brain injuries from boxing.

Mr. Chacon won the featherweight title in 1974 and the super featherweight title in 1982. He was 59-7-1 over his career (1972-1988).

In 1984, Chacon was stripped of his title in a dispute with boxing officials and promoters over his next opponent. By then 32 years old, he moved up one weight class to challenge the lightweight champion Ray Mancini, known as Boom Boom.

This inspired one of Warren Zevon’s best songs:

Also among the dead: Eddie “Crazy Eddie” Antar.

Cary Blanchard, NFL placekicker. He was 47.

Alexis Arquette, character actress and member of the Arquette acting family.

Cahiers du cinéma: September 11, 2016.

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

We were watching movies last night, and a question came up. I don’t remember the exact context, but basically: was The Paper Chase actually John Houseman’s first film?

The answer turns out to be: yes, and no, and it’s interesting.

Before The Paper Chase, Houseman is listed as having an uncredited (and I assume small) role in the film adaptation of Seven Days In May.

But before that, in 1938, Houseman was in something called Too Much Johnson. Just the name sparked immense hilarity among our little group (though to be fair, it was also late) but there’s an interesting story here. Too Much Johnson was never shown in public while Houseman was alive…

As most of my readers probably know, long before he was Professor Kingsfield, Houseman had quite a stage career. Among his other credits, he was a leading member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Welles had an idea: he wanted the Mercury Theatre to do an adaptation of a 1894 comedy, also called “Too Much Johnson”, by William Gillette. But he also wanted to integrate a silent film into the stage production.

Welles planned to mix live action and film for this production. The film was designed to run 40 minutes, with 20 minutes devoted to the play’s prologue and two 10-minute introductions for the second and third act. Welles planned to create a silent film in the tradition of the Mack Sennett slapstick comedies, in order to enhance the various chases, duels and comic conflicts of the Gillette play.

There’s some very funny stuff about Welles editing the film, in his hotel suite, while up to his knees (according to Houseman) in nitrate film. Another of Welles collaborators recalls the film catching fire in the projector, Welles being so absorbed in the editing he didn’t even notice…

“What I remember, most remarkably, is me running with the projector in my hand, burning, trying to get out of the door into the goddamn hallway, and Houseman racing for the door at the same time … while Orson, with absolutely no concern whatsoever, was back inside, standing and looking at some piece of film in his hand, smoking his pipe.”

Anyway, they put the film together and went to stage “Too Much Johnson” at a place called the Stony Creek Theatre in Connecticut before they took it to Broadway. But there was a problem: the ceiling in the Stony Creek Theatre was “too low” for film projection. So the Mercury Theatre staged “Too Much Johnson” without the movie part. Depending on who you believe, the audience reaction was poor. In any case, Welles shelved the “Too Much Johnson” project before he finished editing it: in later years, he claimed that he’d looked at the stored footage, and it still looked pristine. But that footage was destroyed in a 1970 fire at Welles home, and the movie was presumed lost…

…until 2008, when a copy was discovered in Spain. The film was restored and shown for the first time in late 2013. In 2015, the combined film/stage production was staged for the first time. And now you can watch the 66 minute work print and reconstructed 34 minute edit of “Too Much Johnson” at the National Film Preservation Foundation website.

This is probably too much “Too Much Johnson” for most of you, but I make no apologies for my interest in Welles and his work, and I think this is a great story even without Welles and Houseman.

After the jump, topic changes…

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