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The ABQ Correspondent                    

Last Two Issues

 

DECEMBER 2018

 

MAYBE THIS TIME

A whole lot of us yearn for great big, powered, controllable, vertical take-off and landing, lighter-than-air craft with the capacity to carry something impressive like a railroad engine to just about anywhere on Earth, deliver it gently, and fly away to fetch more. The Zeppelins and their ilk chiefly came to bad ends in the teens, twenties, and thirties of the last century, the Hindenburg being only the most prominent example. One of the major inconveniences with the immense things is that wind and weather may be so different at nose and tail that the vehicle is impossible to control, and may even be torn apart. People keep trying, trying, to make generally practical dirigibles…and with some success…as the Correspo noted a couple of years ago, Goodyear has replaced its beloved blimps with bigger, better rigid-frame aircraft that look satisfactorily the same. There’s a new approach in the experimentation: the use of wings and vertical stabilizers for better control, producing a sort of hybrid between a balloon and an airplane that may prove practical. One example is the Plimp by Egan Aircraft in Seattle. They have something in prototype form, and are striving for financing via an insanely optimistic crowdfunding scheme that asks you to hand over $1000 to check you out for your ability to put up $4 million (plus overages) over several years to be early in line for the product. What do I know? Maybe it’ll work. There’s serious competition, and real, if tempered-by-experience hope to see these beauties fly.

   

DITTO

The Correspo has commented previously that in 1968, when it took a week or so of big computer time to manipulate a digital image (which had taken probably a full day to record) some of us were talking and writing about the coming era when we’d be able to extract the essence of Marilyn Monroe from one of her movies, and manipulate it in a new performance in a new movie. As we’re well aware now, that has come about, with a lot of fanfare…starting notably with the recreation of Peter Cushing, then Carrie Fisher in Star Wars productions, quite successfully. Very recently, there’s been a spate of discussion about a company called Digital Domain that has for some years specialized in capturing and preserving the digital essence of living actors. They’re getting really good at it, and certainly we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. What’s interesting now is the reaction of actors and their families to the new reality. Some are rushing to preserve themselves digitally in as much detail as possible…as a revenue-producing legacy for their heirs. Others are urgently taking legal measures to prevent their images and sound from being used. Surely, as the technology becomes better and cheaper, outrageous use of the showbiz icons will be commonplace. When you can work that magic with a smartphone, naïve, silly, and wicked people will flood the media with appalling performances. If, in the meantime, measures are taken to suppress legal use of the material, surely bootleggers will do brisk business. It’s probably worth the struggle in the short haul for performers to gain what value they can from all this, but it’s ultimately a losing battle, and not long hence. What is IT that the struggle’s over? Not physical material, not gems and gold, but data that can be copied and shared a zillion times, faster and faster. How about political leaders in this context…say Genghis Khan eternally exhorting his followers to stay the course? This rapidly gets down to metaphysics. Woof!

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NELS MUSES 
 

Item:

A couple of months ago the Correspo commented on a plan by a company called WorldView to take tourists in comfortable cabins to the edge of space, dangling under balloons that can maintain a specific position over a spot on the surface. Well, apparently DARPA has been experimenting with just that (as have competent folks in China), placing balloons with payloads at 75,000 to 90,000 feet, higher than aircraft we know about can fly to find and down them.

 

Item:

Bruce Schneir, an internet security expert whose monthly newsletter is worth reading, recently commented: “It’s easier to hack a voting machine than it is to use it to vote.”

 

Item:

The flow of items about startlingly smart birds remains unabated. Here’s an article from Nature discussing a bird who, on finding that a straw isn’t long enough to dislodge a nut for consumption, actually assembles a long enough straw out of three shorter ones. Wow! …and here’s video of another crow doing its thing.

 _______________________________________________

ITEM FROM THE PAST

 

This item from 1996 is brought to mind by expressions

of surprise at the frequent appearance of bold coyotes

in their yards by neighbors recently arrived here in the

New Mexico high desert.

Returning from a conference, biologist Damien Scott reports that people studying life around the Chernobyl power plant are finding surprises. Some had expected gross biological anomalies, three-headed squirrels, and all that. No, apparently the incidence of such things is not high, but diversity of species in the area has jumped spectacularly. There are more different kinds of living things within 30 miles of the site than anybody had anticipated. The reasons for this are not wholly clear, but it’s noted that relatively few people are active in the area, annoying other forms of life. In encouraging biological diversity a radioactive event seems to be more effective than restrictive legislation.

In these 22 years since Damien’s report on Chernobyl,

radioactivity and its effect on individual critters have not

appreciably diminished; people are sternly discouraged

from lingering more than briefly in the hot zone. Still,

there are lots and lots of individual animals, and different

kinds of animals in the area. It seems almost paradoxical.

The abundance of coyotes here locally doesn’t seem a great

surprise. After all, this is the Wild West…but the traffic

of wildlife…coyotes, raccoons, rabbits, skunks through

here is sometimes startling. The coyotes stalk family dogs

and cats, sometimes in packs, making it chancy for even

big dogs to be caught alone…but this is not notably

different from what’s occurring elsewhere in the country.

The range of coyotes (“They’re just a kind of dog, and

they were here first, so we shouldn’t interfere with them,

you bloodthirsty bad person, you!”) has reportedly

expanded by a thousand miles, from the lone prayree to

Central Park in Manhattan and neighborhoods in

Chicago where there are pretty good pickings of discarded

food, as well as kitties and the like. Leaving the lab in

Carlsbad CA on winter evenings a couple of decades ago,

one often encountered packs of twenty or more of the

confident predators looking forward to dining on rabbits,

moles, etc in the shrubbery around the business buildings.

Indeed, from inside a dark office in one of those buildings

it was often possible to see coyotes hunting in the bushes

just a couple of feet away. They couldn’t see in through

the windows, and were entirely at ease.

Jim Sterba has pointed out in his writings that we have

more forested land in the U.S. than we had when

Europeans arrived to help out the folks already here a

few hundred years ago.  We now prevent forest fires as

best we can (not much luck on that recently). We have

gone to great lengths to create greenbelts…a zillion miles

of them…through residential areas, providing highways

for wildlife large and small, including vast numbers of

deer. Deer tend also to carry ticks loaded with Lyme

Disease and something unwelcome called Powassan

Virus. It’s hard to discourage the disease without also

discouraging the deer, which is pretty much forbidden.

Where’s the line to be drawn?

Oh, it was also Damien who observed in doing field

work that that cute captured mice were often spared,

while the not-so-cute were…um…sacrificed.  The

selection process protecting cute mice might be

skewing scientific results. Bambi isn’t the only one

getting emotional treatment. 

NOVEMBER 2018

 

EXCUSE ME, CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT COLOR THIS IS?

A recent Correspo item mentioning Gilbert Chemistry Sets of old prompted Dr. William Turner to comment that his Gilbert Chemistry Set had been a major part of his inspiration to become a chemist. We’ve been aware of Bill chiefly as a water manif you want water of some quality, some place, at some time, he’ll figure out how to get it there. Maybe by train, boat, pipe, plane, in canvas bags on donkeys, in bottles on drones…whatever it takes at whatever cost is practical and appropriate to the need. I observed that, red/green colorblind as I am, high school chemistry had been a struggle partly because we were required to obtain analytical data from “bead tests” that involved touching some grains of a chemical (maybe borax) to a sample under analysis, then holding the stuff in a Bunsen burner flame briefly, causing it to turn into a bead of some color indicating the nature of the sample. (“What do you mean ‘this doesn’t help?’ Just look at it.”) Dr. Turner responded with a story:

So colorimetric analytical methods would have been difficult. I recall an instant in the early 80s where this was important. The Mulago Hospital in Kampala after Idi Amin left found their water was contaminated with lead. Knowing that Kampala had about 12 feet of rainfall annually I knew this was not possible. I suspected a faulty analysis using the diphenylthiocarbazone method. Unconvinced, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance sent me to Kampala anyway. On entering the laboratory espied the culprit immediately; there on the windowsill was the dithizone standard sitting in the sun on a warm sunny day, degrading by the minute.  Fresh, they are a deep grassy green. Sunlight and heat are contraindicated for the standards. They should be stored in a refrigerator and the flasks are usually dipped first in black paint or wrapped with black electrical tape. Dithizone, as it is called, is a chelating agent which turns shades of red. Problem solved.”

It’s lucky thing the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance didn’t send me to Kampala. I once bought a couple of blue shirts. When I got them home, Mado asked if I realized that one was purple. No. Uganda is better off without my help and probably without Idi Amin’s, though the man was not without humor; there’s a famous photo of him in a sedan chair being carried by four uneasy-looking white English businessmen in suits.

 

IT AIN’T WHAT YOU SAY; IT’S THE WAY HOW YOU SAY IT

We’ve been taught not to mumble so that we can be understood clearly, and we’ve been taught to select our words carefully to avoid ambiguity and address an audience at an appropriate level, certainly sensible advice. Recently, innovators have come at displayed text from a different angle, developing fonts that are intended to help readers in specific ways. For example, there a number of fonts are intended to make reading easier for dyslexics. One can be downloaded free from https://www.opendyslexic.org/. We can’t show it here, unless you already have it downloaded…the copy just reverts to our usual Times New Roman…but it uses different proportions in the characters, different weightings, different spacings, is sans-serif, etc... Those of us with close associates (and a granddaughter) struggling with dyslexia may find it interesting. A team at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) has developed a font intended to help any reader retain information more easily. You can see and download this free, also at Sans Forgetica, The theory seems to be that if the characters are just a bit odd, and broken it strategic places, so you have to work just a bit to read them, you’ll remember the information the text contains more readily. We downloaded the font, and tried it on a block of lorem ipsum* copy to see how easy it is to read. Not hard, but this doesn’t give us a measure of retention. Presumably a student studying online for a test could convert the font first to Sans Forgeticum (darn, forgot the name) in hope of recalling the material better. This is intriguing, but hard to figure out how to make its use practical. Maybe worth a try.    

*Lorem ipsum copy is really handy…it’s a probably garbled Latin quotation from Cicero that can be pasted into an experimental layout before real text is available, so the designer can see how it looks. This copy also has the advantage of being meaningless to most of us, so we can consider what the layout looks like without being distracted by what it says. Read about it at Lorem ipsum. Here’s a sample:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

 

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NELS MUSES 
 

Item:

As long as the subject of colors has come up again…somebody argued recently that “blue” was not identified as a separate color in the Ancient Greek World. It wasn’t a physical issue, but cultural; the folks just thought of those wavelengths as the shorter end of the green part of the spectrum, not as a “different” color. When Homer spoke of “the wine-dark sea” (as evocative a phrase as any in poetry), he may not have been contrasting it with “deep blue sea.” We have no way to evaluate this suggestion, but it gives a body pause to ask what perceptions we take for granted that differ surprisingly from those of others elsewhere in space and time.

For that matter, who knows exactly what Homer said? The phrase may have been an inspiration of his translator Alexander Pope, whose version of the Odyssey was otherwise so tedious that when I had to read it in high school, I couldn’t find my place on the page again whenever I looked up momentarily. Any appearance of academic scholarship on my part is an illusion.

 

Item:

And speaking of poetic expression, not to mention fonts…Kufic, “the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts”  according to Wikipedia, was referred to by Scottish historian Ashley Cowie recently as “an angular, slow-moving, dignified script used on coins, tombstones and buildings…”  Slow moving? maybe not up to wine-dark, but pretty good.

 

Item:

When an associate’s car was damaged in a break-in, the repair shop told her that somebody had recorded the coded signal from her key fob that opened the door…and then used it to get in. She has since wrapped the fobs in thin aluminum sheet. It’s frustrating that we haven’t been able to make enough of the story to write a full Correspo piece about it, because a great title leaps to mind: FOILING THIEVES. Ah, well.

 _______________________________________________

ITEM FROM THE PAST

 

Again, this isn’t a published item from the past,

but a recollection prompted by the recent passing

of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft with Bill

Gates. Another tip of the hat, really.

I knew Paul only slightly, professionally, but thought
he was one of the good guys, doing worthwhile things

with his money. When we first had lunch in ABQ,

mid-1975 to talk about their doing a magazine

column for us, Bill was probably 19, and Paul 21.

At 41, I considered them kids. They weren’t rich.
It's startling to realize that Paul died at 65.

The vaguely related story is this:

David Bunnell (he'd been one of the early MITS guys, went on to publish Personal Computing, of which I was the original editor, PC Magazine, PC World, Mac World, and a number of other influential magazines) emailed me one evening some years ago asking if I'd seen him and me on 60 Minutes. I hadn't, and had no idea what he was talking about, so he sent me the link to that show online with specific markers to the points at which we appeared.
The show featured an interview of Paul Allen, who had just published a book in which he said some not entirely complimentary things about Bill Gates, so the journalists were pursuing the gossip. Behind Paul ancient footage was running of the personal computing industry from the 1970s. At one point, the camera trucked along a table...and sure enough, there I was, inexplicably sitting in front of an Apple computer. The camera kept moving, and a few feet farther down the table sat David, doing goodness-knows-what. I have absolutely no recollection of the occasion. David and I agreed that this had turned out perfectly: we'd made the Big Time, appearing on 60 Minutes. but there was no penalty to pay, because nobody knew it but us. Thank you, Paul.

There had been 10th and 20th anniversary gatherings

of the people who surrounded MITS in the early days,

including David, Dar Scott, Steve Pollini, and Forrest

Mims among the many. At the 20th Paul spoke of their

first trip to MITS to demonstrate the BASIC they’d

written for microcomputers, recalling that when they

were asked to stay an extra day, they didn’t have

enough money for a hotel room. Eddie Currie of MITS

bit the bullet, and put the room on his overextended

credit card. Bill didn’t attend the reunion, and David

commented that Bill didn’t want to spend an

uncomfortable couple of days around Ed Roberts

of MITS. Bill and Paul had been in a tense lawsuit with

the company over ownership of their work…Ed saying

it was work-for-hire that the company owned, and the

fellows saying that they had just licensed their work to

the company. MITS lost, and Bill figured Ed was still

angry about it. “He was still mad, wasn’t he?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” said David.

There was no reunion at the 30-year mark, but Paul

hauled a big crowd of us to Seattle on his nickel for the

40th-year reunion in June of 2015...much appreciated.

It was a nice event in the city in which he was such a

major figure, very interesting in several ways.

Now that computers are woven into every aspect of 

society, few remember that Albuquerque was a major

center in the start of the personal computing revolution.

Indeed, not many personally recall that it was a revolution,

and our ranks are thinning.

I was sorta looking forward to the 50th, but with the loss

of Paul, who knows?

Gee, history really is just people doing things.

 

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