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"History is just people doing things"

THE ABQ CORRESPONDENT

                 ISSN 1087-2302   Online Edition Number 290......February 2020

Published since 1985 for clients and contacts of 
ABQ Communications Corporation, the fuzzy focus

of The ABQ Correspondent is "the impact of new 
technology on society." If you'd like to receive email 
notification when each monthly issue is posted, please 
let us know.   correspo at swcp dot com
 

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MAYBE FOR REAL THIS TIME

Every few years, the Correspo has reported hopefully on the development of a new generation of lighter-than-air craft, mostly crosses between blimps (basically balloons) and dirigibles (balloons with rigid structures…think Hindenburg, but without the fire). These things have the potential to lift immense payloads, carrying them from wherever they are…not necessarily a dirigible port built for the purpose, but from any place the thing has room to sit down…to any other place you want that payload. One of the companies previously mentioned, Hybrid Air Vehicles Limited in the U.K. has recently announced that it has a production model ready to go, the AIRLANDER 10. These things are fun to see, huge and bulgy, over 300 feet long, with a passenger cabin 46 by 6 meters...about 2100 square feet. The New Atlas story about Airlander 10 seems a bit more informative than the company’s own website, but for kicks, look at both.

No, they don’t have production money yet, but are optimistic. Another, more general concern is that these things are filled with helium, which, as noted a couple of times previously, is increasingly difficult to obtain. Despite being the second most common element in the universe, naturally occurring accessible helium is in limited supply on earth, and nobody has yet figured out a practical substitute (um, no thanks, we’ll pass on the hydrogen) or a way to extract it from anything but natural gas economically, in quantity. More than a little concern has been expressed, and new sources of supply are expected to come on line (see this, and this), but the easy supply is finite. The situation is apparently not dire enough to limit development of lighter-than-air craft.  Oh, good. Some of us are eager to see them in commercial service.

 

MOVING RIGHT ALONG

Back in the 1950s, when exotic, newfangled transistors were first being put to work (not integrated circuits, mind you, but individual transistors in TO5 cans), Iben Browning and Larry Bellinger figured out how to use them in a way that could be helpful to the blind. They built a device with a photocell, a lens, an oscillator, and an amplifier, fitted into a tube about like a medium-sized marking pen. Sensing light, the device generated an audible tone that was louder...and I think higher…when the light was bright than when the light was dim. An earphone plugged into the device let the user hear the tone as the photocell was moved about, pointing at different things. With a bit of practice, a non-sighted user could detect obstacles in a path, figure out where the printed stamp was on an envelope, even read oscilloscope traces. They called it the Hear-a-light, and made a bunch of them, offering a potentially helpful tool. Well…the organizations of blind people and organizations of the sighted intended to help blind people whom you’d expect to work together promptly got into turf wars over the technology. Some users complained that the thing was confused by shadows (well, yeah, sighted people have to learn to deal with shadows, too) and it was clumsy to handle, especially while carrying a cane…and, well, basically, it didn’t let them see. Confronted by politics and over-expectation, the Hear-a-light faded away.

Well, things have changed…maybe. For some years now, a company called OrCam has been developing technology to help the non-sighted. They have a camera you can mount on the frames of glasses or pin to a shirt-front, using computer technology with machine intelligence to process what it sees…recognize people, examine and analyze obstacles, identify food on a buffet…explaining audibly, wirelessly to its wearer what, who, and where things are. A handheld device can look at books, and read them aloud. The technology still doesn’t let the non-sighted see, and goodness-knows-what political complications will impede use of the systems, but this is spectacular progress, and perhaps something good will come of it.

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NELS MUSES 
 

Item:

As “urban agriculture” …growing food crops in warehouses or street dividers or on apartment-house roofs or balconies…becomes a bigger thing along with production of synthetic meat* and all the hassle that engenders, the boffin are developing new strains to food plants that flourish in the different environment and are easier for a city-type to grow. A team at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, NY has developed a kinda nifty bush tomato that grows in constrained situations, producing masses of good-looking cherry tomatoes. Dunno how they taste, but it’s interesting to see plants being developed for new special needs and circumstances.

Again, it’s hard to hard to imagine replacing amber fields of waving grain with technology in the old sweatshop textile factories, but things do change. Presumably every little bit helps.

*Finally tried some Beyond Meattm burgers the other day. Not bad. Texture fine, taste…well, like meat…but the cost was mighty high, and my try-it coupon had expired by the time I remembered to take it to the store, of course.  Ah well. Real meat will do just fine at modest cost for the time being. We shall see.

 

Item:

It has probably occurred to most of us that it would be nice to have a device that generates electricity from our routine movements to charge our cellphones…that is, not by doing something deliberate like turning a crank, just picking up power without tiring us. 

Well, they’re working on it. Not getting much power, but maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel…an LED, probably.

 

Item:

This report from UC San Diego speaks interestingly of copying a design from nature (usually a good bet, because we know it works) to create suction cups that can be used as gentle grippers to pick up samples that are either smooth or rough. Suction cups work well on windows, but typically not on bricks, for example. Maybe this can help. Beyond the practical aspects of this, it recalls a presentation by a Home Depot clerk who was recommending to me a new style of “plumber’s friend” that was not the traditional rubber suction cup at the end of a stick, but a device entirely molded of plastic, handle and all. It is a bellows that when pushed expels a LOT of air, and then forcefully brings up a LOT of water or whatever when pulled back. Its power is significant, and the clerk described it by saying “With this you could pull a golf ball through a garden hose.”  Great line, maybe even correct if I could find a way to connect to the hose. A very satisfactory product over the years.

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ITEM FROM THE PAST

 

This item from 1997 is brought to mind by current

reports of a Y2020 problem that has come back to

haunt these two decades after Y2K was put to rest.

TURNING THE CORNER, UNSTEADILY

The “Year 2000 Problem” is reportedly more vexing than most of us have thought. It arises from the fact that an immense number of computer systems contain software in which the year is represented by just two digits...96, 97, 98, 99...and then 00. Unfortunately 00 is interpreted by older systems as 1900, not 2000. This problem is harder to fix than it sounds...for example, when the date is coded in firmware in a satellite in an 11,000 mile orbit (causing concern in some circles about the GPS satellites important in navigation), but also in massive databases that cannot readily be reprocessed. Stories of interesting Year 2000 effects are circulating.

...about the bank that went bust. The managers reported trouble with floods, droughts, and other uncommon activities. Unsatisfied, the examiners dug deeper, and discovered extraordinary numbers of defaulted student loans that dragged the institution down. More examination showed that whenever “00" appeared, even in a projection, the system automatically declared the loan in default. Worse, payments from former students who were dutifully paying their loans went to a federal account, which credited the cash to the bank. The bank had no way to recognize that income. The IRS, noting that the bank was failing to report the income, assessed major fines. The problems ballooned uncontrollably. True? Who knows?  Plausible? Oh yes.

...and the major food store chain that couldn’t keep canned dogfood in stock. They were pleased until they discovered that the product never got to the retail stores, just to the warehouses. Well yes, an automatic mechanism checked the “sell before this date:” value on the packaging, found “00,” and immediately disposed of the outdated product. 

What else? A fleeting shadow of concern crosses one’s brow.

There’s a lot of scorn in recent years about the

Y2K “false alarm.” In fact, there was relatively

little bad effect…few people stuck in elevators…

trains crashing, etc. Even late-show hosts have

commented about the wicked sensationalism

blown out of all proportion back in those days

when people weren’t very smart.

Yeah, but Y2K was not false, not a made-up

problem, and the media sensationalism, perhaps

helpful for once, drove a whole lot of folks to

examine their code thoughtfully, and clean it

up. Apparently, not everyone approached the

problem with sufficient foresight. Some seem

to have modified the software to put the problem

off twenty years…certainly beyond any concern

in the late 1990’s. But, here we are, and 2040

seems rather distant now, beyond most practical

worries.

Just an odd recollection: in the late 1990’s Bill

Gates was probably at the height of his mystical

glow in the popular mind…the one person most

associated with high tech magic and glamor,

the inventor of computing, master of all.

An acquaintance of ours…an otherwise sane

fellow, a geologist engaged in useful activities all

over the world, on hearing about Y2K asked if

Bill Gates knew about it. I said he probably did.

“Well, why doesn’t he just fix it?” he asked.

One suspects that Bill’s aura has dimmed a bit

since then as he enters his revered statesman era,

leaving the boy wonder era well behind, and he

may not be asked as often to wave his hand to

solve every technical problem. Probably much

to his relief. He didn’t ask to be a legend, it just

came with the territory.

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After some years of working and reworking, this has become a real book, via Lulu Publishing. The blurb on the back (under a picture of the author looking unnaturally cheerful) says:

 “This book is Nels Winkless’s wry look at his half-century-and-more as a “professional outsider” writing, editing, interpreting, presenting new ideas, and serving as a sounding board for interesting people who have influenced some of the major technical developments of the era. While fascinated by the dazzling advance of technology, he’s most intrigued by the savage resistance people have to every sort of change, making technical progress virtually miraculous, and he suggests an explanation for this puzzling conflict.
   His recollections of the work and people are often funny, sometimes painful, and usually surprising.

 

ISBN: 978-0-557-05785-6                        Review(s)               Available at Lulu.com

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