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The ABQ Correspondent 

Last Two Issues

 

November 2022

 

NOT FALLING IN

Given concern about water pollution, interested parties are testing vast number of water samples each day, pretty much all over the world. This has created an effort to develop better testing techniques and a worthwhile market for new systems that collect water samples from often inconvenient places. A company called NixieDip has developed a “drone mounted water sampling and sensor system”

that does just what that sounds like, flies a drone carrying an open bottle to a pond, puddle, or stream, dipping it in the water, and bringing it back to shore. Their video is sort of fun, especially with its touch of gurgling and sloshing noise. The goal is to speed the process and reduce the cost. This recalls a project in the mid-1950s when we were trying to locate significantly warmer or cooler spots on earth (e.g. volcanoes, fields of hot springs, isolated islands and lakes, steel mills…) for the purpose of satellite navigation. We not only found references to a major paper on hot springs done in the 1920s, but found Dr. Gerard and Mrs. Waring, who were co-authors of the paper…still living in Palo Alto in their 90s. They received us kindly, even lent us 160 maps illustrating an updated version of the original document which they hoped would not be published posthumously. Their concern was largely with the temperature of the water, of course. We asked about the precision with which they placed the thermometer in the waters. “Well,” they said in some indignation at the silly question, “we put it in the water as far as we could without falling in.” Ah. Useful information. Their excellent new work was published timely. My, how they’d have appreciated a NixieDip.

 

OUR GROWING COMMITTEE

Very recent research indicates that cancer tumors in our bodies contain a large array of microorganisms that interact with one another and with their hosts hosts, affecting their activity…thus us. The tumors have biomes of their own, A significant portion of the tumor biome is fungus. Who’d have thought? One wonders how far down the line this trend goes…are there biomes of some sort within the fungi and other microorganisms that we’ve not yet detected?

The Correspo has observed more than once that each human being (and presumably each dog, pangolin, warthog, cockroach, herring, barnacle, etc.) while functioning as an individual entity distinguishable from others, with goals of its own and ability to act within the limitations of its structure…is really a committee of living things. We’re all made up of cells, each of which has goals and capabilities of some sort. Somehow, all these different entities cooperate to make a life for the larger being of which they are part. And it’s more complicated than that; each of us has a a biome of individual microorganisms within us, gazillions of them, living in vast communities within our gut and every nasal, ear or whatever passage within us. That ain’t the half of it. Similar vast communities of living things live on us…on our skin, which at microscopic scale is not smooth, but is rough terrain with many places to lurk and thrive. Research indicates that the gut biome strongly influences our health, and more recent studies indicate that the external biome on/in the skin is also influential. They are us.

And, a bit disconcertingly, look up, instead of down the line. We know that people are one part of the whole interconnected scheme of life on this planet. The Correspo has noted that plants communicate with other plants, not always directly, but often via media such as fungi, that may quietly spread to cover very large areas, passing messages along. (I don't know that the communication is deliberate and selective, but I don't know that it's not.) It’s an old idea that Earth is itself a living organism. The Greeks personified the notion as Gaia. Might not Gaia then be part of a still larger organism as our cells and internal/external biomes are part of us? And then where to? Without even wandering off the through the minefield of spiritual issues, speculation on this series of physical relationships leads to having another beer.

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NELS MUSES 

Item: Recent discussion recalls this travel tip from some years ago: a friend who is, as best I can determine, a secret agent by trade, commented once that when serious gunfire breaks out in a community he’s visiting, he goes directly to the airport, and gets a flight to somewhere else. “Do not stop at the hotel, forget any luggage.” From a safe distance, he can figure out what was going on, and decide to return or not. “I can always retrieve a suitcase later, or buy a new shirt and underwear if retrieval is impractical,” he says.

 

Item:

Here’s an all-electric 9-passenger airplane that has already made a test flight. Mind you, I don’t figure to be an early passenger in any of these newfangled vehicle (well, I was cautious about the 747, too) but It competes with the Lockheed Constellation as the greatest-looking passenger plane ever.

 

Item:

Just a couple of small instructional things: The first is about how riding a bicycle works, which

is a surprise to this old bicycle rider. The second talks about how rocket engines work explaining more clearly and interestingly than anything else we’ve seen in the popular literature, I can’t build a rocket engine still, but can ride a bike in spite of knowing more.

 

ITEM FROM THE PAST

 

This item from 2007 is probably the first reference

in the Correspo to 3d printing.  

FAB FEST FOR ALL

Some fellows at Cornell have developed a kit with which the average tinkerer can build a “rapid prototyping fabricator” for personal use. It’s a bit of a stretch, but the developer thinks of this as paralleling the personal computer, giving Everyman the ability to fabricate small three dimensional objects with surprisingly precision. The surprise is that the system can be built for about $2400...instead of the $20k and up, up, up required for existing commercial systems. Wow. We’ve talked about such fabbers in the past; they can create 3D objects from plastics and some other materials by depositing layer after layer of material under computer control. It’s like the reverse process of cutting a rubber duck into thin slices from bottom to top. You can reassemble the duck by laying those slices one atop the other again. In a fabber, those separate slices are virtual, specified by the computer, and created successively to form the whole object. Startlingly, the object can contain completely closed hollow spaces. The technique is not rare these days; Sons Brock and Garth have both been involved in using such systems in creation of objects for movie special effects, but they work in a field with sufficient budget to do exotic things. This new development gives the capability to vastly larger numbers of people. (In one variation on this, Brock and I visited a shop where six or eight heads of Michael Jordan, each with a different hair style, were sitting on a bench. Apparently, he had signed up to do a commercial for some product, but was impatient with the idea of sitting in a makeup chair for hours and hours while people actually gave him several different hair styles...so they did a 3D laser scan of him, and used an automatic system to carve many accurate heads out of dense plastic, which the technicians could finish and style at their leisure. When quick shots of these things were intercut with shots of the real man, they looked like the real thing. Indeed, they looked mighty real, and creepy, there on the bench. The method of fabrication is different here, but the general notion is the same.) A patient craftsman/inventor/developer, can use systems like this to create devices of infinite complexity, experimenting in a practical way without spending a whole lot of money. It’s a brave new world. You can see more of it at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fab%40Home  (not the same link as that in the 2007 piece.)

The world is now chockfull of 3D printers making

everything from turbine blades to maquettes of

people who provide pictures of themselves. In the

movie special effects house where Garth has been

studio manager, the folks were making an immense

lying-down dinosaur for some production…maybe

40 feet long in its greatest dimension. They had to

ship it from Hollywood to a distant location, which

required that it be cut up just to get it out of the

shop. One of the fellows showed me an accurate 

two-foot long model of the thing that he’d produced

on a cheap 3D printer on his workbench. They could

cut that experimentally (and replace it cheaply)

before they tackled the big one.

New 3D printing techniques are being developed at

a startling rate. One of the variables in 3D system is

the method used for “curing” the material as it is

formed. It may just dry in the air, it may be sintered

with a later, may be exposed to ultraviolet light. A

new system developed at Concordia University in

Montreal forms the object inside a dish of runny

gelatine, using pulses of ultrasound that can be

directed to specific spots. The gelatin becomes “solid”

at those spots as the energy is applied. Under computer

control (of course) a solid structure can be created.

When it’s complete, the gelatin is poured off, leaving

the structure. You may not need a part made of

solidified gelatin, but you can take a mold of the

original and reproduce it in various ways. This will

probably turn out to be the very best way for somebody

to produce what’s needed…and if this doesn’t serve,

people are experimenting with a dozen alternatives.

This wasn’t all obvious just fifteen years ago.

 

October 2022

 

SCORING

In 1951, when the mass medium commercial television was only few years old, my ad copywriter dad realized that he should learn something about creating the short movies that were television commercials. So, with an associate he began to produce commercials for local advertisers, carefully avoiding conflict of interest with the major national agency by whom he was employed. We (well, I was 17 and useful as a gopher) learned all sorts of interesting things. For example, we learned that it was ordinary practice to buy rights to music from a “music library.” For one production, we used Charles Gounod’s 1872 composition The Funeral March of a Marionette (which Alfred Hitchcock used some years later as the theme for his television show) by paying a modest fee, and swearing to use the music only in a way agreed to in advance. We bought that through a company memorably named Boosey and Hawkes, which these seventy years later is apparently the major publisher of classical music in the world, having manufactured musical instruments and experimented with other music-related businesses. Put this way, that sounds sort of bland, but Boosey and Hawkes has an entertainingly wild and woolly history. These days, of course, you find music libraries online…example…some free. It’s a cinch to find good opening and closing music for videos, Electronic synthesizers producing startingly rich sound…up to full orchestras as well as individual instruments …enabling musicians with some talent to compose music rapidly and inexpensively. Bro Jeff produced some excellent scores for minor feature films as well as commercials and other small productions. Now machine intelligence can crank out music to spec in any style it has ever heard, some even pretty good. Copyright issues have become increasingly cloudy.

 

ANOTHER TIP OF THE HAT (AW)

Readers of the Correspo may recall frequent references to Stephen Sester (see last month) who was the source of many observations about the world, and who just a couple of months ago supplied me with some Breadfruit Chips that were probably not an elaborate practical joke, though they may really have been wood chips. We lost him unexpectedly in August.

    I met Steven when he was working as a designer/graphics guy/whatever for Logical Machine Company in Sunnyvale CA in what must have been 1976 or early '77. At the time I was still the original editor of Personal Computing Magazine (didn't know much about either computers or magazine publishing, but I could write entertainingly about people trying desperately to use a newfangled personal computer for something...anything). Steven seemed pleasant, smart, and interesting, and over the years in changing situations, we became friends, and stayed sometimes regrettably in touch. 
    I once brought him into a company I was involved with, and he became one of a group of us who were trying to get the company' public performance going in the right direction in spite of their naivete (and, as it turned out, recalcitrance). It was frustrating and more than Stephen could stand, so it got kind of complicated.
    It was startling to learn that he had an eidetic memory. He commented a few years after staying at our place in Albuquerque briefly that he could remember where everything in the house was even better than I. We tested. Sure enough. It was then less of a surprise to learn that he had been a bigtime PR guy, a first rate graphics designer, a sailor, a skilled navigator, and a spy for the State Department. Not only did he lead exploring military units safely out of Cambodian jungle, but he attended parties all over Europe ("I cleaned up well enough so they could send me into respectable society.") where it was not possible to carry cameras or recording equipment...and he remembered for them what he saw and heard. That talent was both a blessing and a curse.
    It was a big surprise to me that the chap who had introduced him to Logical and who was bigtime in the computer business, an international business consultant, and a good friend of mine, had been one of Steven's handlers in the spy biz. It makes sense; my friend traveled worldwide working with all kinds of companies under NDAs, but it had never occurred to me that he was a spymaster. Coulda knocked me over with a feather. Now everybody is suspect, of course.
    I introduced Steven to my boss, three times as smart as I am, and incidentally my goddaughter, and he was extremely helpful in educating her in design sensibilities. He became a friend and mentor, though they never met in person. Steven paid one of my granddaughters to use some of her artwork as his Christmas card one year. (She’s dyslexic, discalculic and bright, but sometimes comes across as slow-witted, because she has to process input systematically and it takes a moment or two). Very encouraging to her. Good on Steven.   
    No idea why he found my acquaintance worthwhile. He was always surprisingly interesting and knowledgeable...but I never had a clear picture of his personal history, family, etc...and never did press him to make things clear, because much of it was obviously distressing to him.
    He must have been bipolar, because emails would come at a reasonable pace when he was low, and build up to several a day during the highs...some of those were very long, full of incomprehensible references. That's where I saw bits of history and family stuff. I couldn't keep up, but I made a point of replying often enough, noting specific things, so that he knew I was paying attention.
    We were aware of his physical wounds that wouldn't heal and of some economic stress and all that, but had no indication that something fundamental would cause him to pass in his sleep. He was a mere child by my standards.

     Another of his friends described him as “strange and unique.” An understatement.

     Steven was one of the good guys and we already miss him.

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NELS MUSES 

Item:

On Queen Elizabeth’s passing, one of the network television stations in Albuquerque, scrabbling for comment from anybody whose opinion might be relevant, called the St. James Tearoom, a splendid Olde English Tearoom housed oddly in a Southwestern adobe building. Proprietor Mary Alice Higbie rose to the occasion, satisfying the needs of the media. Whatever it takes

 

Item:

Here’s a straw in the wind. People are buying lots of smart automated systems because they can’t hire people to do the work. Maybe I’m a bit sensitive to this because the digital display on my car’s dash went out a few weeks ago…the analog display tells me how fast I’m going and how much gas is in the tank…but not how far I’ve gone at what rate of gas consumption, tire pressure, and all that stuff that has spoiled me.

Took the car in for warranty service on 9 August. The dealer didn’t have anybody to diagnose the problem, and couldn’t make an appointment for the diagnosis. If I took the urgently needed car to drive, I’d lose my place in the queue, and would have to start over. Finally borrowed it back from them on 9 September. I can have it till the part comes in on an unknown date from Baluchistan or Mars or somewhere.

I’d jump up and down and complain, but it wouldn’t speed the process. The dealer can’t hire help, and they have two hundred cars waiting for attention, with two hundred angry customers calling them regularly. It seems to be that way with dealers of all brands. When I hitched a ride to my accountant’s office to sign tax papers, and recited my tale of woe to the receptionist she offered little sympathy. She had just got her car back after a three month wait.

It’s hard to think of a better stimulus for development of smart machines. 

 

Item:

Jake Mendelssohn has reported on his jackfruit project:

“I am sorry that I did not update you on my jackfruit adventure.

Here is the update:

The wife left

The dog left

Even the skunks left

but the jackfruit is delicious.”

Somebody must have slipped him a durian instead of a jackfruit.

 

ITEM FROM THE PAST

 

This item from 2016 is recalled by the recent big

response to the DALL-E machine intelligence

system for producing artwork.

ALMOST GOT A GRIP ON THIS…

Conventionally, the media through which we convey impressions or information to others are passive, carrying the expressions of the author of the material without interpretation or enhancement. However, the times they are a-changin’. The smartphones with which we send texts are not passive; they try to help, plugging in what they think we must mean, instead of just passing along what we write. Sometimes words or phrases appear in texts we send that are completely baffling…it’s hard to figure out in retrospect what we actually wrote…or meant to write.

The systems use long years of word sequence analysis in the wide world as well as, one supposes, analysis of specific texter’s habits, to anticipate ways to complete a string of characters that has been started.

 E.g. if I type “thank” on my smartphone, it offers “thank” “thanks” and “Thanksgiving.” If I add a space after “thank ” the choices switch to “you” “you for” and “goodness.” I can touch any of those displayed options to enter it without having to type any more characters. Hitting the space bar accepts the first option.

As we continue the string, the system stays with us, offering new possibilities instantly. If we enter a typo, say “dredd” when we mean “dress” and don’t notice, but just hit the space bar, the system enters “freed” into the copy. If you garble a couple of words in a row, it may help you to utter confusion. While entertaining, and possibly even useful, this isn’t creative on the part of the system; it’s just counting word sequences and figuring odds.

12-year-old Scott Newton was idly fiddling with the smartphone recently when it occurred to him keep a string of largely-machine-generated text going to see what it produced. He got this:

The best thing ever is when I get a new thing that could make me feel so much orange juice and it is not an easy way to go out and get a better way to keep it to be on my mind is so much for me I end up being a cup of bananas and tea and the rest of the day after a long time to go back and forth between two of my life and I have a great way to get a new one is a great day to be a good day to be a great day to be a good day to be a great day to be a good day to be a long time ago I saw my life

Is it poetry? (If you think that’s a simple question to answer see how hard it is to define “poetry” succinctly.) It may not be crisp Haiku, but it’s at least as clear as the Ezra Pound stanzas we struggled with long ago. Granted that it’s nonsense…it isn’t quite random nonsense, and may hint of capability to come.

If the engine behind it were not an iPhone, but Watson, a Watson that has looked at everything about the Texter, as well as, for example, all of Wikipedia, which Watson is said to have inhaled already, might the range of possible next phrases be more interesting?  What if Watson is limited to a narrower field of interest, such as physics or Tibetan butterflies as well as knowledge of the Texter, and allowed to consider and suggest much longer strings? Might the Texter be able with Watson’s help to discover useful patterns in previous thoughts? Could it winkle out ideas that have been flickering just below conscious level in the Texter’s mind, linking these ideas to partially formed notions of others?  Might Watson learn to provide better and better guidance as the Texter learns to work with it more effectively?

That seems likely to some of us. A system integrating Human Intelligence with Machine Intelligence…neither understanding the other, but interacting with little effort…should produce interesting and useful surprises.

It’s tough to express this faintly glimmering concept of bottom-up, “emergent properties” clearly and briefly with only a few hours of thought.

Thanks for running the experiment, Scott. 

DALL-E’s ability to accept plain-language

descriptions of images, and render them

quickly in several styles…then allowing

refinement of those images with additional

description…sounds a lot like what we were

speculating on six-and-more years ago. The

technology is moving apace, and we…people

…are gradually learning how to think with it,

not just about it.

BTW, Scott Newton, who was twelve in 2016

has now entered grad school at 19 to study in

a field he hopes will do somebody some good.
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