© 2014 Grant Cunningham Click to email me!

Friday Surprise: How much of the past do you remember?

Change is inevitable, and it leaves behind fascinating memories.

Friday Surprise: The Soviets had a few tricks up their sleeves, too.

Reader Dave M. sent a link which led to me to a great article from Russia Today about the High Voltage Research Facility, in the little town of Istra west of Moscow.

Friday Surprise: timekeeping with teeth.

We take modern manufacturing for granted, but before the advent of CNC and 3D printing craftspeople did amazing things. To do so, they used amazing tools. Here's the story of one.

Friday Surprise: resurrect a satellite? Why not!

Some people restore old cars for a hobby, but some aim a little higher: they restore satellites!

Friday Surprise: Blast from the past. Literally.

Seems that 60 Minutes went poking around a Minuteman III missile launch complex and discovered something we all thought had become extinct.

Friday Surprise: how would you like your own star?

It seems like forever since I've penned a Friday Surprise, but like the Ghostbusters, I'm back! Today it's with something you might not believe is actually possible.

Those crazy Belgian gun designers!

Know what this is?

(Photo courtesy of Ian McCollum)

Let’s just say that it’s for one of the oddest pseudo-machine guns the French army ever bought. And *that* is saying something.

Friday Surprise: I'm a Space Cadet - how about you?


What’s the significance of this patch?


Friday Surprise: Serious nerd alert - talking about supercomputer operating systems!

How do you recover something historical when you lack the means to even tell if you have it?

Friday Surprise: History turns on a rock.

I have a somewhat convoluted tale to tell, so sit back and follow the trail.

Friday Surprise: Metamaterials could alter our perceptions of what’s possible.

One of the big benefits of the internet has been the democratization of knowledge. As little as ten years ago, for instance, it was commonly believed that the bumble bee somehow violated the laws of aerodynamics, and that scientists couldn’t understand how it flew.


FRIDAY SURPRISE: Want a Van Gogh but can't afford it? This is for you!

3D printing is probably the hottest thing in the tech world right now. It promises to revolutionize small-scale manufacturing, and even though it's still a very young technology it's being testing for everything from prototyping to making rocket engine parts.

Of course being a firearms enthusiast you probably already know about the various guns and gun parts that are being made with 3D printing, but here's an application that's worlds apart from rockets and bullets: 3D printed artwork.

We've had lithographs of paintings for ages, yet they aren't entirely satisfying to view. Part of the beauty of an oil painting is the texturing the artist uses: the canvas itself, the brushstrokes, the layering of paint. That simply can't be reproduced in two dimensions, but 3D printing brings an entirely new perspective to the world of art reproduction.

Fuji (of film, camera and lens making fame) has developed a technique which uses a combination of laser scanning and 3D printing that can copy paintings in three dimensions. The results, apparently, are stunning. Not cheap, at $35k a pop, but stunning - and for far less than the millions that a real artwork might fetch.

Read all about it over at PetaPixel.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Photography of NASA

When the Space Race against the Soviet Union started in 1957 we entered into a period of great technological progress. We discovered things that had never been discovered, designed things that had never been designed, and went were mankind had ever gone before. It was an exciting time to watch what we could do, both as a nation and as a species, when we put our collective mind to a singular task. NASA became the preeminent research and engineering organization on the planet.


When we think of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions we inevitably think of the rockets and space capsules and lunar landers that were the stars of the show. That wasn’t all NASA did, however, and behind the scenes they were building new structures purpose designed to build, test, house, and launch the new wonder machines. When they weren’t pushing the boundaries of space exploration they were working to push our broader understanding of flight into uncharted territory.


As it turns out,
NASA has a Flickr account full of historic images of man, machine, missions and structures that go way beyond shots of astronauts on the moon. It's a great way to waste some time on a starry summer evening!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Is there a bright side to a drone?

Drones are all over the news as of late, and usually not under pleasant circumstances. They're usually thought of in terms of surveillance and destruction, but there is another side to these unmanned aircraft - they can be used to make stunning videos from vantage points most of us will never have.

Take this video, shot in NYC by a privately owned DJI Phantom Quadcopter. Gorgeous footage!

FIRST FLIGHT OF THE PHANTOM from Nicolas Doldinger on Vimeo.

Here's some of the backstory on this surprising (in the sense that the videographer didn't get arrested) video.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Want your own drone? It’s easier than you think.

I'll admit a simultaneous fascination with, and revulsion to, the march of technology. It enables me to do certain things, like sharing neat and important information on this blog, but it also means that others can find nefarious uses for the information on the 'net.

Sometimes the reverse happens. While drone technology presents real threats to our safety and security, the downward slide of technology means that you and I can have our own drones to use as we please. That's because remote control rotorcraft are more affordable and easier to fly than ever, and cameras have gotten both smaller and higher in resolution.

This is a video taken to highlight the abilities of Sony's new Action Cam. An Action Cam was mated to a six-rotor helicopter then flown over Battleship Island, the now-famous Japanese abandoned city. The resulting footage is extremely cool - but the best part is that you can do this yourself! (Well, except perhaps getting access to the island, but I’m sure there are suitable subjects in your neck of the woods.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

The home made gun isn’t a new thing, despite what you hear on the news.

There’s been a lot of angst amongst the gun prohibitionists this week, and the latest comes from the revelation that
the first firearm made entirely with a 3D printer was successfully test fired just a few days ago.

The reaction from the gun-grabbers was hardly surprising: they’re moving to make 3D printed guns illegal. Of course we all understand how meaningless such a law would be, but they have to do something, by golly!

You may not be aware of this, but making guns easily in a garage has been the goal of many gun designers over the years.
Ian at Forgotten Weapons recently featured one such rare and obscure arm: the Croatian Šokac submachine gun from the 1990s.

It is not an anomaly; building a gun using primitive machine tools is often the norm in places where armed resistance is a necessity, arms are scarce, and there is no factory to supply the need.

The Šokac can be made in a garage using not much more than a medium-sized lathe and milling machine; any reasonably skilled gunsmith could construct one with the normal tools of the trade, as could many automobile mechanics or one of the tens of thousands of metalworking hobbyists who have a machine shop in their home. A high school metal shop could turn them out en masse.

The only real difference between the Šokac and the Defense Distributed “Liberator” pistol is the skill level needed to build one. When you compare the cost of the minimal hardware necessary to make a steel gun and a plastic one, the numbers are very similar - it’s the skills necessary to do so which differentiate the two. The Liberator can be made by anyone with a decent computer and the funds to acquire a 3d printer. (Wait until the machinists and the 3D printer owners get together…)

In other words, this story isn’t really news. People have been surreptitiously building firearms since the dawn of the gun, and that hasn’t changed. It’s just gotten to the point where one doesn’t get grime under their fingernails doing so.

It also underscores the futility of trying to outlaw firearms altogether, which is the overt goal of many anti-Second Amendment zealots. People will find a way to make them, right under the noses of the people who say they can’t.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Mighty Saturn V rises from the deep.

It's no secret that I'm enamored with the Saturn V rocket. For my generation (read: old fogies) the Saturn V defined the United States; it was big, bad, and cemented our belief in our technical superiority over the Evil Empire (read: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.) To this day it is the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever to be deployed and holds the record for launching the heaviest payload into space. It's also the most reliable, because in its 13 launches it never lost a crew member or payload.

The Saturn V was the rocket that took us to the moon, and there was nothing like the giant fireball of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines in its first stage to ignite our nationalistic pride on liftoff. Those godless Soviets may have been first, but by golly we were the BEST!

In the 2 minutes and 41 seconds those engines burned they took the Saturn V to an altitude of 42 miles and a speed of over 6,000mph. At that point the first stage was jettisoned and the five Rocketdyne engines would tumble into the sea, to be forgotten by the American people.

All except for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Like me, he loves the Saturn V. Unlike me, he has more money than God and can afford to do outlandish things - like putting together a team of ocean explorers to recover some Rocketdynes from the sea floor.
He succeeded, and you can read the story and see some pictures of the recovered engines, at Fast Company. Be sure to watch the incredible slo-mo video they've put up as well - it's a view of a Saturn V liftoff that isn't commonly seen.

For me, though, I never get tired of the film where "USA" travels past the camera on the way out of the launch gantry:

No matter how hard they try, North Korea will never top that!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The very short history of the video arcade.

Just the other day I was reflecting on the progress mankind has made in the short space of my life. I can remember vividly when the first VCRs came on the market; I can remember going into an audiophile electronics store and seeing the very first CD player and all of the CDs that were then on the market (perhaps a dozen at most.) On the computing front, I started in 1977 using a central time share computer utilizing a phone line, 110 baud modem and a teletype machine (no video display in those days.)

Back in the 1980s the internet wasn't even a dream yet; what connectivity we had was Fidonet (text only) and Usenet. Only geeks knew how to use that stuff; mainstream acceptance of email was still a couple of decades away. Today my iPhone does more stuff, faster, than the first PC I used. It's also a small fraction of the cost, as long as you ignore the wireless carrier's bills!

What brought all this to mind is
an article I recently read about the rise and fall of the video game arcade. When I was in high school the first console-style video games were released, and shortly thereafter the video game arcade was born. So pervasive did they become, and so quickly, that when a large shopping mall opened in the area in 1981 a central feature was the dark cave of the video arcade. Parents could go shopping while their kids played video games.

(If they'd only stopped to look at the neighborhood, perhaps they wouldn't have been so trusting. Then again, that was the era I was toting a large camera bag, filled with expensive equipment, through the late-night streets of Portland taking pictures. It was a different time.)

The article is very good, giving a solid history of the video game arcade -- a history that started with the evil pinball machine (read the article, you'll understand) -- as well as an analysis of why they disappeared. Read and enjoy this story about an era that lasted just a few years but pushed both technology and society forward. Whether that is good or bad is for you to decide.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The last days of an adventure.

There was a time when Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy, for those who grew up in the late '60s) was the center of national and international attention. That's where all of our manned space launches happened: the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects, as well as the Space Shuttle missions. It drew throngs of tourists and resulted in a long-lived boom in the region. It was a place where real magic happened.

With the close of the Shuttle era, however, the infrastructure of Cape Canaveral is being idled. The thousands of technicians, engineers and scientists who worked there have dwindled, and along with them the tourists. The Cape is slowly turning into a ghost town, complete with empty attractions and shuttered businesses. The structures on launch pad LC-39B at the Kennedy Space Center were demolished in 2011, while the fate of sister pad LC-39A is uncertain.

Photographer David Ryle has spent some time there chronicling the decline of what has been called "Space Coast".
A selection of his pictures are up at Fast Company, and are worth a look if you - like me - were ever fascinated by the idea of human beings being rocketed into space.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The future of education?

When you think about it, the art of education hasn't changed much over the centuries. Sure, there have been advances in what is being taught, and in the technologies used to facilitate that teaching, but in general the process itself hasn't seen much advancement over the generations.

While one could argue that the authority-based methods used today are necessary to maintain some known level of consistency and quality, another could argue that it's not actually happening; it's possible to go into virtually any institution and find someone teaching something that is either demonstrably wrong or severely skewed because of a radical personal viewpoint.

Might there be another way?

Fast Company published an article about a new project that's aimed at bringing post-secondary education into the twenty-first century and simultaneously making it available to everyone. Called P2PU, it's an online collaborative university. It's a radical way of delivering education, and while it's still very much experimental (and unaccredited) it's definitely intriguing.

Will it work in the long run? I don't know, but it's exciting to contemplate the possibilities.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Texting for safety.

Kelly Muir, developer of the
Wrong Woman integrated self defense course, has some great ideas for using text messages to bolster your personal safety.

When I was doing search and rescue some years back, one of the mantras we repeated was "always tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back." Texting makes this easy, and with group texting (which I understand not every phone supports), you can easily let a number of people know where you are and who you're with.

Watch the video. Heck, make sure your kids watch it too!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Not so far out. And not so real.

Last week's Surprise was about space, so I thought "why not keep the theme going?"

The Space Shuttle, as you probably heard, has been grounded forever. In total, we built six of them: The Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric tests only and never made it to space; the Columbia, which broke up on re-entry in 2003; the Challenger, which blew up shortly after lift-off in 1986; and Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor, which were all retired and are even now in the process of being moved to museums.

There was one Shuttle, however, which preceded even Enterprise. It's been sitting, nearly forgotten, in an unlighted warehouse in Downey, CA since 1972. There's now a movement underway to restore it and put it on display.

So, why doesn't anyone remember it? After all, it was the model - literally - for all that would follow. If you can think of a word that rhymes with "follow", and put it together with the other clues I’ve worked into this post, you’ll get the rest of the story. Alternatively, you could take the easy way out and just
click on this link and read about it at the Los Angeles Times.

It’s more interesting, at any rate!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Far out. For real.

In the fall of 1977 I was starting my junior year in high school (we had actual high schools back then; no junior high nonsense, and we didn't refer to ourselves as being in the "eleventh grade".) I was something of a math and science geek, and along with that came an abiding interest in space travel. NASA was like Mecca.

For anyone who followed the goings-on at Cape Canaveral, it was an exciting time. The launch of the
Voyager space probes - Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 - was imminent. They were destined to do exploration of Saturn and Jupiter and hopefully give us new information about those planets, information which we couldn't get from telescopes on earth.

The launch went perfectly and the Voyagers did their jobs at both planets. We learned many new things from their close fly-bys, but the machines were still operating.
NASA extended both missions, with Voyager 2 being sent to Uranus and Neptune and Voyager 1 being sent on a mission to explore the outer limits of the sun's influence. Voyager 2, if it were to be operating after the passes over Uranus and Neptune, would join that mission.

Today Voyager 1 is the furthest man-made object from earth: 1.8x10^10 kilometers, or 120 astronomical units, or roughly 11,154,696,873 miles. It is now in a part of space that we've never explored, a region known as the heliosheath. This is the narrow area between our solar system (heliosphere) and interstellar space, where solar winds slow and cosmic rays start to penetrate. This was an unimaginable achievement when the Voyagers were launched, and unless Voyager 1 collides with something it is
expected to reach the heliopause - the very boundary between the solar system and open space. When? We don't know, because we don't know how thick the heliosheath is. That's something else the Voyager missions will be able to tell us!

Voyager 1 is expected to continue to function until about 2020, at which point it will be 43 years old and its systems will finally run out of power, many years past its original design life. We may not have been able to make very good automobiles back then, but we sure knew how to make spacecraft!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Technology ain't what it used to be.

One of my little obsessions is simplistic technology. This usually means older technology, that which is less complicated and (ironically) many times better for us and our environment.

It was with tremendous joy, then, that I stumbled upon a great website devoted to Luddites like me:
Low Tech Magazine. There you'll find articles on simple technology, obsolete technology, and even technology myths. It will probably vie for a large portion of my recreational time; well, when I get any it certainly will.

(Yes, I realize the contradictions inherent in extolling the virtues of old technology on a computer network. I consider such juxtapositions an art form.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: And we thought we were SO hot back then.

It's fun to go back in time and revisit our earlier lives. I can remember leisure suits (though thankfully I was only a teenager when they were popular), when gas prices hit $1 for the first time ("a dollar for a gallon of gas? What's this world coming to?"), the first "brick" cel phones (only the truly important, really rich, or incredibly vain carried them), and looking at computer magazines drooling over 5mb hard disk drives. ("Five megabytes, all in one place!? What a wondrous time to be alive!")

I remember when the first PCs came out with a hard drive as a very expensive option. The Shugart ST-506 drive was 5mb capacity and cost something like $1500; it was soon replaced by the ST-412 10mb drive which was considerably less expensive and thus far more popular.

When MS-DOS v3.0 came out it supported a FAT16 file system architecture, which allowed drive sizes up to 32mb. There was a sudden jump to the larger capacity, and there were several 30mb or 32mb drives to choose from.

Up to then drives for microcomputers were all of the 5.25" size. When 3.5" disks debuted we thought that it was a miracle of miniaturization! Little did we suspect that things would get much smaller and of much higher capacity very quickly. What a wondrous time to be alive!

That was nothing, though. For some time I had a DEC PDP-11/70 in my garage, complete with a
DEC RM02 Hard Disk Unit. That hard drive was the size of a dishwasher, weighed over 400lbs, used a removable five-platter disk pack measuring 14" in diameter, and held - get ready for it - a grand total of 67mb of data!

Today I have a couple of 1tb drives in a RAID the size of a box of graham crackers. What a wondrous time to be alive!

Ten years from now I'll probably be laughing at that statement.

This was all brought to mind by a
neat article on the downsizing of computer storage at the Colganology blog. (For those of you who aren't familiar with Colganology, it's...different.) Lots of great pictures, too, though I notice he doesn't have any of the RM02....pity.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Smoke detectors and your rifle.

I recently read an ongoing discussion about red dot sights on defensive rifles, and it got me to thinking about their utility to the defensive shooter.

First off, I like red dot sights when I'm shooting. My eyes are unable to focus cleanly on the front sight of a 16-1/2" barreled AR-15, and the red dot makes it easier for me to shoot. Not that I can't shoot with irons, only that it takes a little more effort. Red dots are a great invention, and they’re fun (and almost obscenely easy) to shoot.

Despite that, none of the rifles that I use for serious purposes carry red dot sights. Why? For the same reason that most building codes don't allow battery operated smoke detectors in new construction.

Hard wired smoke detectors have been required in new buildings for nearly thirty years (depending on the locale.) It's not that battery operated detectors don't work, but rather that they require maintenance. It's not a whole lot, mind you: check the batteries twice a year, replace once a year. Despite not being a huge burden, it often doesn't get done and the consequences are dire. Hard wired detectors eliminate that maintenance and guarantee that the devices are always ready to operate at any time. They should still be tested, but the risks associated with not doing so are reduced to nearly zero.

The cost (in terms of effort and attention) of keeping a battery-operated detector operational is therefore higher than that of the hard-wired variety. Not a lot, but it's enough that lives are routinely saved. Because of that cost, the predictability of operational readiness is lower with the battery operated detector than with the hard wired variety. (This predictability is the reason the trucks and engines in your local fire station are hooked into "shore power" when they're not in use, even with trained firefighters there at all times to check them.)

The same principle applies to the red dot sight. Yes, some models have batteries that can last years, but that means one has to remember to check them frequently. There is a risk it that the batteries will have failed since the last check, or that the electronics may have failed even if one has been extremely vigilant about the batteries. Though I handle my handgun on a daily basis, it's often many months between the times I pick up the rifle and thus many months can elapse between the necessary maintenance checks.

Here in rainy Oregon, we have increased risks due to the climate: when in use, optics occasionally get obscured by water drops and we're often discovering that a device's waterproofing has failed. I could go on, but you see the point: unpredictability.

Iron sights suffer no storage degradation nor do they suffer unexpected or unpredictable failures. Unless they're damaged to the point of not being usable (in which case I can tell before I fire a shot that they're not working), there is no doubt that they'll be there and ready to work when I need them. They're predictable, and predictability is a Good Thing in defensive firearms.

It's not Luddism, just an admission of the increased difficulty of keeping a complex device ready for use at all times and under all conditions. I want the rifle to be ready, now, regardless of the last time I checked the batteries or remembered to turn it off/on or any electrical/mechanical faults it may have suffered since I last shot the thing. I'm not claiming that I'm "just as good" with irons as with the scope, only that the mechanism of the iron sights is more reliable under more conditions for a longer period of time.

I can hear the refrain now: "but guns break, too!" Yes, they do. We accept that as part of the risk of using the things, but I see no reason to compound that risk by an order of magnitude (maybe several) for what is really a small benefit.

I like red dots, I like shooting them, my eyes thank me when I do, but for the gun that has to be capable of being run hard without warning or preparation? Give me iron sights.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A short history of Unix, and a caution for the future.

A couple of months ago I brought you the news of the sad
death of Dennis Ritchie, the co-developer of the Unix operating system. As it happens, his death occurred just before the 'official' anniversary of the birth of Unix - the publishing of the first Unix manual in November of 1971.

Spectrum, one of the publications of IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), has a
great article of the birth and impact of Unix. It's a must-read for anyone interested in computers or the history of technology.

One thing in the article struck me: that an original copy of Unix did not exist until it was recreated (and only then after great effort) by some software engineers. It's interesting to think that a vital part of technological history was essentially lost, and might have remained that way had someone not cared about it.

Electronic creations are fleeting; they're jettisoned wholesale when new and better creations are introduced, and nowhere is that more true than with software. We upgrade our software and throw out the old versions; the media deteriorates or the ability to read it is lost. It's hard, for instance, to find an actual copy of any early software for any computer, let alone the more obscure stuff. Software is planned obsolescence in its highest form, and one where the old literally disappears permanently at a keystroke to make room for the new.

The topic of preserving our technological heritage is one I think about frequently. There are many early and important computers which no longer exist; in a few rare instances, like the first version of Unix, enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to build replicas. The Colossus project in England is a perfect example, without which we would have no record of the pioneering machine or the people who built it.

There is only one SAGE - the largest computer ever built - left in existence, and it is non-functional. These and many more achievements, and the people who made them, are fading into obscurity.

This is of particular interest to me as an author. My work here on this blog (and the rest of my site) exists only as ones and zeroes on a computer somewhere. At some future point all of what I've done will simply disappear; electronic copies of my book can disappear too, no longer left to future discovery on the dusty shelves of some thrift store.

Nooks, Kindles and iPads may in fact be the future of reading, but I'd still like to see paper books available if for no other reason than to serve as a marker to future generations: we were here, this is what we did, and you don't need to restore some ancient device (if it's even possible) just to read them.

'Ephemera' is the term used to describe things that weren't meant to last, things that were never expected to leave an imprint on the world. If we're not careful, everything we do - and our very existence - will end up in that category.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another blow to film.

Many years ago I was sitting in a small room at the Eastman Kodak Marketing Education Center near Rochester, New York. In that room were a number of movers and shakers in the photographic industry, talking with some Kodak VPs about the state and future of the business.

At one point they asked us what we felt was the biggest threat to photography. When my turn came, I told them that in ten years photography would cease to exist, to be replaced by what we then called electronic cameras. My belief was based on the fact that video cameras had, in less than five years, destroyed the home and serious amateur movie business. I reasoned that the same would happen to film photography, and for the same reasons.

The Kodak folks were nothing if not self assured, and they told me I was dead wrong in both my analysis and predictions: "people will always want to hold their memories in their hands", said one executive, and another chimed in that "real movies will always be made on film."

I was wrong about the timeline - it took twice as long for digital photography to take hold as I had thought, and the last bastion of silver halide on acetate as a common imaging medium has in fact been the movies. But that, too, has changed. Another era is ending before our eyes.

That’s because the major makers of movie cameras - Arriflex, Panavision, and Aaton - are now focusing exclusively on digital, and are no longer making film cameras. These companies have discontinued the production of all film cameras simply because no one buys them anymore. The rise of HD video, and their immediacy coupled with lower production costs, is making video the dominant form of movie production today.

There is certainly a place for film, and film production itself has not completely disappeared, but the used market is glutted with 16mm, 35mm, and even 70mm cameras - enough so that the makers of these things,
according to an article in at, have decided that there is no longer any need for new examples to be produced.

It's fun to be vindicated, at least occasionally.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Bell tolls for one of its own.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about one of our country's greatest research facilities, Bell Labs. Yesterday came the sad news that one of the Lab's shining lights has died.

Dennis Ritchie started working for Bell Labs in 1967 after graduating from Harvard with degrees in both physics and applied mathematics. This wasn't a tremendous surprise: his father Alistair was a scientist at Bell Labs and a seminal figure in switching circuit theory. The family business, and all that.

Dennis migrated to the relatively new field of computer science, where he made a name for himself by creating the 'C' programming language, co-authoring the definitive book on 'C', and - most dear to my heart - co-developing the UNIX operating system.

That dry list of accomplishments may not mean much to you, but a large part of what your computer does has roots in Ritchie's work. If you have a Macintosh computer, an iPhone or iPad, you owe him a special nod of appreciation: UNIX is the underpinning of the OS X operating system, which (in one form or another) is what runs all of those devices.

The development of modern software and the existence of the web as we know it wouldn't have happened the way they did without his work.

Thank you, Dennis.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Defensive training. iPhone. What's the connection?

Yesterday Apple announced a new iPhone, and with it an advanced software to add voice control to that phone. (“Siri”? Who names these things?)

Almost immediately the blogs and tech sites were abuzz with inevitable comparisons to the competition, complete with tables breaking down the products feature by feature.

I found it amusing that they all had one line that said 'voice control', with a simple "YES" or checkmark on each product. Some of the more adventurous would take pains to point out that the competition had 'voice control' for some time, and Apple was just catching up. What they failed to take into account was the relative sophistication and integration of the feature on all the products; love 'em or hate 'em, Apple's new voice assistant goes well beyond the simple "call Bill at work" kinds of control that phones have had for years. The software anticipates and evaluates natural language requests in a way that hasn't yet been done on a consumer device, and interacts with the phone's functions in a wider way than we're accustomed to.

(My best friend was the founder of a software company which did pioneering work in the field of computer control via voice recognition. Even he's impressed with how far Apple was able to push this technology, and he's about as jaded an expert in that field as you could ever find. He’s also one of the best shooting instructors I know, which gives me the perfect segue into this article’s actual topic!)

My point is not to sell phones - personally, I don't derive my self-worth from what I buy or what you don't buy - but rather to point out the folly of making bullet point comparisons. If you just looked at the bullet point of voice control and saw the checkmark, you wouldn't come away understanding the vastly different ways in which that feature has been implemented.

This goes well beyond phones, as lots of people do the same thing when they take defensive shooting classes. I call them "checklist students" - people who make decisions as to what school or class they'll attend by looking over a list of topics being covered. I've actually talked to people who have chosen one class over another because of the number of topics covered, without understanding the depth of the instruction or the unique approach of the instructor.

I've also seen students request refunds from instructors when the simple number of things they learned wasn't the same as in other classes they've attended, even though the student made no effort to understand or become competent in those things that were taught. The checklist is in control, not their desire to learn nor their appreciation of their own skill development.

There are instructors out there who will throw a million different topics into a class and give the students perhaps a couple of minutes with each, then dash on to the next item on the agenda. There are other instructors who cover a fraction of those topics but cover them thoroughly, giving students time and opportunity to really start to develop some proficiency. Unfortunately, the former tend to be the more successful - checklists, it would seem, sell classes as well as phones, cameras, cars, and just about everything else.

If you buy a phone via a checklist, the worst that happens is that you don't have the functionality of another phone. You can always get another. When it comes to your skill development, particularly the ability to successfully defend your own life, the stakes are a little higher. Make your training decisions based not on an ambitious list of topics, but on an understanding of what, how and why your instructor does what he/she does.

Leave the checklists to those who would rather brag than learn.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Ghost of the future.

One of my favorite PBS shows was "
Connections", the ten-part series from British science writer/historian James Burke. In it, Burke looked at the often surprising interrelationships of disparate discoveries and inventions that invariably culminated in something no one involved in the process could have imagined. From those connections (get it?) we see that even small changes in the past would have made huge impacts in the present. It's a concrete, approachable explanation of the butterfly effect.

What brought this to mind was last week's
surprisingly frank admission by John Sculley, the long-reviled ex-CEO of Apple Inc., that his tenure there was a "mistake." (As an aside, I gained new respect for Sculley for being able to judge himself so clearly.) While I agree with that assessment with regard to Apple, when I look further at the series of connections that occurred because of his position it's clear that something very good came of it.

You see, had Sculley not taken that job at Apple there would be no
World Wide Web. Certainly not as we know it today.

Follow me: when Sculley took over at Apple, he and
Steve Jobs clashed. A power struggle ensued which resulted in Jobs being forced out of the company he founded (and in which he held a majority of the stock.) Jobs spent the summer of 1985 contemplating his situation, and before the year was out had formed a new computer company: NeXT, Inc. NeXT's goal was to produce a very powerful personal computer that could be used in education and research, to simulate things like recombinant DNA laboratories.

Jobs put together a team of talented engineers who designed the hardware and software which would become the
NeXT Cube. The operating system, called NeXTStep, would combine parts of BSD Unix and the Mach kernel to produce a multitasking, object oriented operating system. While it never achieved the market success that they had envisioned (for a host of reasons, not the least of which was a retaliatory lawsuit from Apple-led Sculley) it did make significant inroads in research labs around the world.

It was in one of those labs, at
CERN in Switzerland/France, that a 35-year-old British physicist named Tim Berners-Lee came up with an idea: take the relatively new concept of hypertext and expand it beyond the single computer (or node of computers) to which it was then limited. His idea was to use the Unix Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) to allow computers across the internet to access each other's hyperlinks. That sounds dry to us today, but it was a breakthrough.

Hyperlinks and TCP are the basis on which the World Wide Web operates; without that combination, you wouldn't be able to click on the links in this article and go to other sites for more information - or even navigate Without them, the web as we know it simply wouldn't exist. No Revolver LIberation Alliance, no online shopping, and no porn sites. (Ya gotta take the bad with the good.)

The computer that inpsired Lee, and on which he did his development work? The NeXT, running the NeXTStep OS. WIthout NeXT's heavily object-oriented development environment, Lee wouldn't have been able to design the ubiquitous "www". Would someone have eventually come up with the idea? Maybe, maybe not. Even if they had, though, it wouldn't have proceeded on the same path that it did. The web, if it even existed, would be a profoundly different thing than it is today. That's the nature of interrelationships: change one, and every other one changes. Some may not happen at all.

Whether Sculley knows it or not, the (unintentional) consequences of his actions in 1985 led to you being able to read about his self-assessment on your computer screen today. Ironic, isn't it?

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The day the internet died.

Yesterday was a monumental day in the history of the 'net: Duke University, the birthplace of Usenet,
shut down its Usenet server some thirty years after it first came to life.

Citing diminishing use and rising costs as the reason for the shutdown, this comes as sad news for those of us who cut their teeth on newsgroups. While there are other servers still hosting Usenet traffic, the closure of the Duke server is a sign that the end is near.

I spent far too much free time on Usenet in the '80s and '90s. Before the World Wide Web, Usenet was THE source of information and interaction on the 'net. If you know what DoD stands for, you spent a lot of time on; if you know who the KoTL is, you spent
too much time there!

There are people I "met" on Usenet with whom I still correspond. I first encountered Ed Harris, whose name should not be unknown to readers of this blog, on rec.guns. That was more years ago than either of us care to recount, and despite never having been face-to-face we've exchanged ideas, shared projects and even collaborated a bit on a training manual for emergency communications. There are others whose names would mean nothing to you, but mean a great deal to me.

With so many ISPs dropping Usenet access, people for whom the WWW is the whole 'net don't see the loss. For those of us who remember FidoNet gateways and
bang paths it's like losing an old friend.

Virtually, of course.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: It certainly was.

I woke up this morning, completely sure in my mind that it was Thursday. As everyone else knows, it's actually Friday, which means I owe you a blog post, late though it may be.

TIME recently ran
this great slideshow of old computer hardware, photographed in a way you might not expect. Very nice work, and some detail of a rapidly disappearing past. Enjoy, and happy Friday!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

GETTING THE MESSAGE: I've been harping on the failures of "Rule #1" for some time now, and it seems that the attitude is catching on. Slowly, but at least progress is being made.

IT ISN'T JUST ME: I've recently expounded on the issue of dogmatic teaching in the self defense world, and I'm not alone in my criticism. Check out this post from Roger Phillips over at, then read the entire discussion. (I've never met Roger, don't know him from Adam, but he makes sense. Can't say that about everyone.)

POCKET COMPANION: no, not a J-frame! From Dustin's Gun Blog I learned of a new iPhone/iPod Touch app called Legal Heat. It's an interactive version of their printed guide to concealed carry and gun laws in all 50 states, written by attorneys and instructors. It' a great idea, and something that's needed. Unfortunately, despite the viability of the concept I cannot in good conscience recommend this particular app.

There is a big issue with Legal Heat's usability. The pages are just images of the book, which means they're pictures and not text. This sounds inconsequential, but it's not. When you bring up the laws on a state, because it's showing the whole page the text is tiny; unreadably small. To read it, you need to magnify the image by pinching. (The usual double-tap doesn't work, because it doesn't work on full-frame images!) Once you magnify the image to read the text, you have to continually scroll back and forth because images don't wrap text. Finally, the app doesn't support screen rotation; it only displays in portrait orientation, which exacerbates the scrolling issue.

Frankly, iPhone users are accustomed to a higher level of application quality than Legal Heat delivers. If they would simply make their pages actual text and enable screen rotation I'd be comfortable recommending it. As it stands, even at $1.99 it's not worth the hassle.

DEAL ALERT: My background in commercial photography has left me more than a little anal retentive with regards to optics, particularly when it comes to binoculars. I'm a fan of porro-prism designs, as they a) have better three-dimensional perspective, b) are brighter, and c) cost less than roof-prism types for any given level of optical quality (resolution/contrast.)

Minox makes some of the best porro-prism binocs. The optical performance is exceptional, and the build quality matches the glass. They make an 8x and a 10x version, and at a street price of roughly $550 they are something of a bargain; you'll need to spend roughly twice as much to get a roof prism of comparable performance, and you still won't get the perspective advantage that the porro-prism design gives you.

Despite their advantages, porro-prism designs are distinctly unfashionable these days and don't sell well regardless of brand. Roof prisms are what people buy, and Minox has bowed to the market: they've discontinued the 10x model.
SWFA is closing them out at $299.95, which has to be classed as a screaming good deal. You won't find anything even approaching their optical performance for that kind of money. (Yes, I grabbed a pair - for that price, I wasn't about to pass them up!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Good Morning, Dave.

Once upon a time, two geeks met in college. They had some neat ideas about the world of computers, and were anxious to put their ideas into production. They started a little company.

Shortly after they incorporated, they introduced a new computer - one that was more accessible, more flexible, and under the control of a single person. They didn't make many of them, and very few exist today, but with it they changed the face of computing forever.

No, I'm not talking about Jobs & Wozniak. I'm thinking of Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, and the company they founded -
Digital Equipment Corporation. DEC, as it would come to be known, introduced what was really the earliest commercial incarnation of the personal computer: the PDP-1.

The PDP-1 certainly didn't look like what we've come to expect of the PC. Nevertheless, it started the downsizing of computing power, and introduced a concept critical to the modern PC: user interaction, as opposed to batch data processing. This shift was the necessary step to creating true personal computers, and DEC got there first.

Interactivity opened up huge new vistas for the computer. The PDP-1 has the distinction of initiating things we now take for granted: text editing, music programs, and even computer gaming. (The very first computer video game, 'Spacewar!', was written for the PDP-1. Yes, you have DEC to thank for your Wii.)

DEC only made 50 PDP-1 machines, of which only 3 are known to have survived. All of them are currently in the collection of the
Computer History Museum. One is fully operational, and is demonstrated twice a month by running that historic computer game. They've got a terrific website that details the history and restoration of the PDP-1.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Witch is Back.

Back in '51, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Oxfordshire welcomed a new member to their staff: a computer. Today we don't even bat an eyelid when a new PC shows up in the office, but back then computers were a Big Deal. (After all, how many new staff members get their own office - the largest one in the building?)

The Harwell Computer, later to be known as "WITCH" (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), now occupies a unique position in computing history. It holds the distinction of being the world's oldest surviving computer with electronically-stored data and programs. All the original parts are present and it is capable, in theory, of being operated.

Though it hasn't been switched on for over 35 years, it is now
being restored to operational status at the Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. They expect the restoration to be completed next summer, at which point the WITCH will be able to claim another title: oldest operational computer, beating out the Ferranti Pegasus whipper-snapper at London's Science Museum.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: It's all geek to me.

One might think that this era in history is the most well documented that has ever existed. Why, we have photography and sound recording and movies (and their digital equivalents.) Everything, it seems, has been saved for posterity. How much better preserved we are than our forebears!

Yep, you'd think so. And you'd be dead wrong.

There are huge gaps in our archival record, and oddly enough they have to do with the very things that should be most easily chronicled: our technology. Obsolete technology is disappearing, and with it a vital understanding of what we as a species have accomplished in this world. Decorative arts seem to be deemed worthy of perpetuation, no matter their relative importance, while everything else is consigned to the scrap heap.

Take just the computer - there are surprisingly few organizations who have made an effort to preserve this recent technology. With programmable computers being no more than about 60 years old, we should have a very good record of all that has passed in their development. We don't. Old computers are rare, and the earliest (physically largest) machines are virtually all gone. Of those first pioneers we have nothing but a few bad photos and the occasional fragmentary drawing.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other gaps in our historical records through which technologies, people, organizations, and companies have fallen. There are a few places attempting to preserve bits and pieces of our technological past, and one of them is the
Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation (SMECC).

SMECC maintains a fascinating site that gives a good feeling for the breadth of their collections. Particularly valuable are the first-person chronicles of the people who actually made the things in the museum's collection.

A warning: their site is perhaps the worst example of Microsoft FrontPage design. It's not nice to look at, not well laid out, and you'll have to poke around to find the gems. It feels like a throwback to the early '90s internet, which I suppose one could argue is appropriate for a museum. (With all that, it's still better than the average MySpace page.)

Any self-respecting geek could easily spend days there. Whether you're into computers, radios, or microscopes, SMECC has something for you.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Heard of the
Large Hadron Collider? It's the world's largest particle accelerator, located on the French/Swiss border. A particle accelerator, colloquially termed an 'atom smasher', is a device that uses electric fields to propel electrically-charged particles to high speeds. By colliding particles together - sort of a subatomic head-on crash - we can do all kinds of things. A low-energy accelerator forms the viewable image on a cathode-ray tube (CRT), medium-sized units are used to create isotopes for medical research, and the biggest, highest energy installations help scientists learn about the fundamental structure of the universe.

Long before the LHA was even conceived, the United States boasted the largest particle accelerator:
the Bevatron at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. Built in the early 1950s, it had a nearly 50-year career before it was finally deemed too expensive to maintain. Mothballed in 1993, the decision was recently made to dismantle the gigantic machine to make room for new research facilities on the crowded campus.

Wired has a great article, with many pictures, on the continuing demolition.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Cassini, but not Oleg.

In 1997, NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft to study the planet Saturn. It finally reached the ringed planet in 2004, and started sending back some positively amazing images. The craft continues to work perfectly, and as a result the mission has been extended to 2010.

See more of these incredible pictures.

A quick synopsis of the craft and mission.

The Official Cassini website.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

I'm gratified - and somewhat surprised - at the tremendous response to last week's post
"Risk assessment, or lack thereof." One of the difficulties I've found with this whole blog adventure is predicting what will resonate with my readers. In some cases I've been deliberatively provocative in order to get people to think outside of their comfort zone, while in others I've tried to deliver solid technical information not readily available in the swamp that is the internet.

On occasion (as with the article under consideration) I worry about whether I'm talking over my audience, that the subject might be a bit too abstract. I'm happy to find that my readers are significantly more discerning than average.


One complaint about the Bianchi SpeedStrips is that they're not available in calibers other than .38/.357. I'm surprised that, until tipped off by a reader, I didn't know about
Quick Strips from Tuff Products. They appear to be a clone of the Bianchi product, but are available in a wide range of calibers. Check 'em out.


You may have heard that the U.S. Attorney General called (not surprisingly) for reinstating the infamous Assault Weapons Ban. What was surprising was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's adamant refusal to consider such legislation. Mr. Obama's administration may find their road tougher sledding than they'd originally anticipated. All the better for us!


A while back I wrote about the iPhone/iTouch ballistics application iSnipe. While it worked well, it was pretty basic; as I explained to the author, it needed some features added to enhance utility for the serious long-range shooter.

It didn't take long for competition to appear:
Ballistic FTE has everything I ever wanted, and then some. It is superb in every respect; you must see the target recording function! It even has a calculator to help with rangefinding (mil-dot) reticle use. Ballistic FTE is a bargain at $9.99.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Up, up and away!

I've previously mentioned my appreciation for the work that NASA has done over it's 50-year history. NASA grew up right along with me - or me with it - and NASA was always doing the exciting stuff boys of that era were smitten by: Astronauts. Fast planes. Rockets. The Moon.

(It wasn't just spectacle, though; NASA was the catalyst for technological progress that continues to be felt today. A surprising number of the things we now take for granted can be traced directly back to some NASA project.)

We learned about the exploits of the engineers, technicians and astronauts through NASA-supplied pictures in the magazines of the day. My early interest in science was kindled by those pictures, and some of them I still remember.

NASA documented everything, but not all of their photos were of general interest. A large percentage of their images were never seen by the general public because the media was understandably reluctant to publish anything of interest only to nerds. Through the magic of the internet, however, we now have ready access to some of those great pictures.

The agency has launched a
new site just for NASA images. You can search or browse and download your selected pictures, drawings, and illustrations - some of them of quite high resolution. You'll find lots of astronomical images, of course, but you'll find all kinds of other things too.

Two of my favorites from the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, taking the first men to the moon:

Saturn V rocket FTW!

If you're a science buff like me, you can spend large amounts of time on their site. I recommend that you not try this a) at work, or b) when your significant other expects you to be paying attention to him/her/the kids/household chores/your dinner guests. You have been warned!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Rodents aren't just for felines any more

If you're under 40, the name
Douglas Engelbart probably means nothing to you. It should, though, because a huge amount of the machine on which you're reading this sprang from his fertile mind.

Engelbart (yet another product of Oregon, having been born in Portland) worked at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) before the dawn of the personal computer revolution. Many of the things we now use without a second thought were developed by him, or made possible by his work: bitmapped screens, the graphical user interface (GUI), hypertext, and networking. The very birth of the internet occurred when his lab at SRI and it's counterpart at UCLA networked their computers to become the first two nodes of

His greatest moment would have to be his "
Mother of All Demos" in 1968. In that presentation, he introduced to a stunned world the early working implementations of video conferencing, teleconferencing, interactive text, email and the aforementioned hypertext. It is, perhaps, the single most important event in the history of modern computing.

One of his inventions revealed for the first time at the Demo was a new invention: the computer mouse. It would take over a decade before his now-common pointing device finally reached the market (attached to the ill-fated Xerox 8010 Star Information System), and several years after that before it came to the notice of the general public (as an integral part of the original Macintosh.)

(John C. Dvorak, computer pundit, wrote in 1984 of the new Mac and Engelbart's invention : "The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a 'mouse'. There is no evidence that people want to use these things." Dvorak is not known for his prescience, which surprisingly fails to deter his continued employment.)

YouTube has the entire Demo available.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently turned 50. What's DARPA, you ask? Well, it is the agency that invented the network upon which you are reading this missive.

DARPA was founded to do fundamental, high-risk research into science and technology that could be used for military purposes. Today that sounds ominous and vaguely sinister, but in the 1950s it was exciting and patriotic.

One of their projects was called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), intended as a way for DARPA staffers and researchers to disseminate information and share computing resources. It introduced email, file transfers, and even voice protocols into common use, all made possible through the magic of packet switching - another DARPA innovation. This groundbreaking computer network would, with their guidance, evolve into what we now call the internet.

(Funny, isn't it - the internet upon which you can read anti-military and anti-American rants until your eyes launch themselves from their sockets is the product of an American military project. Euro-weenies will no doubt point out that the World Wide Web was the invention of an Englishman working at a Swiss lab, but his contribution - important as it is - was simply a way of easing access to information on the already vast internet. His work would not even have been necessary had it not been for DARPA.)

The computer network wasn't DARPA's only development, of course - the magnificent Saturn V rocket and the computer mouse both came from the think tanks at the agency. How's that for a wide ranging legacy?

Happy Birthday, DARPA - keep up the good work!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: To boldly go...

When I was a wee lad, America was at the forefront of space exploration. By the time I was old enough to know what was going on, we'd recovered from the shock of the Soviets beating us into space, and had responded in a big way with Gemini and Apollo programs.

In those days, our grade school classes would literally come to a halt as we gathered around a television set to watch a liftoff or a splashdown. The mighty Saturn V rockets - spewing a fireball that remains unequalled for sheer excitement - would take our astronauts into space for yet another thrilling mission. Landing men on the moon was our crowning achievement, watched by just about everyone in the country.

Space flights were national events on a scale that I haven't seen since - and probably never will again. The SuperBowl and American Idol Finals may draw larger audiences, but in terms of captivating our collective conscious, of instilling pride in our country and what we were capable of doing, they will ever equal the NASA of the mid 20th century.

NASA has put together a little retrospective of their first 50 years, using photos that have rarely been seen publicly. If you are a child of the '50s or '60s, this will bring back stirring memories of what we briefly referred to as Cape Kennedy.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Update to last Friday's Surprise: Nessmuk online!

A regular reader informs me that the Nessmuk classic, "Woodcraft and Camping", is available online as a .pdf file - completely FREE!

"Woodcraft and Camping" at

If you haven't yet gotten a copy, you now have no excuse!

-=[ Grant ]=-