Friday, February 15, 2013
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, November 16, 2012
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 ]=-
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
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 ]=-
Wednesday, April 04, 2012
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, December 02, 2011
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, November 18, 2011
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 collider.com, 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 ]=-
Wednesday, October 05, 2011
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 ]=-
Monday, December 14, 2009
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 warriortalk.com, 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, December 11, 2009
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, November 20, 2009
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, September 04, 2009
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 ]=-
Thursday, August 07, 2008
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 ]=-