Monday, October 29, 2007
Reading List: Space Race
- Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. ISBN 0-00-720994-0.
- This is an utterly compelling history of the early years of the space race, told largely through the parallel lives of mirror-image principals Sergei Korolev (anonymous Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and beforehand slave labourer in Stalin's Gulag) and Wernher von Braun, celebrity driving force behind the U.S. push into space, previously a Nazi party member, SS officer, and user of slave labour to construct his A-4/V-2 weapons. Drawing upon material not declassified by the United States until the 1980s and revealed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the early years of these prime movers of space exploration are illuminated, along with how they were both exploited by and deftly manipulated their respective governments. I have never seen the story of the end-game between the British, Americans, and Soviets to spirit the V-2 hardware, technology, and team from Germany in the immediate post-surrender chaos told so well in a popular book. The extraordinary difficulties of trying to get things done in the Soviet command economy are also described superbly, and underline how inspired and indefatigable Korolev must have been to accomplish what he did. Although the book covers the 1930s through the 1969 Moon landing, the main focus is on the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s. Out of 345 pages of main text, the first 254 are devoted to the period ending with the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard in 1961. But then, that makes sense, given what we now know about the space race (and you'll know, if you don't already, after reading this book). Although nobody in the West knew at the time, the space race was really over when the U.S. made the massive financial commitment to Project Apollo and the Soviets failed to match it. Not only was Korolev compelled to work within budgets cut to half or less of his estimated requirements, the modest Soviet spending on space was divided among competing design bureaux whose chief designers engaged in divisive and counterproductive feuds. Korolev's N-1 Moon rocket used 30 first stage engines designed by a jet engine designer with modest experience with rockets because Korolev and supreme Soviet propulsion designer Valentin Glushko were not on speaking terms, and he was forced to test the whole grotesque lash-up for the first time in flight, as there wasn't the money for a ground test stand for the complete first stage. Unlike the “all-up” testing of the Apollo-Saturn program, where each individual component was exhaustively ground tested in isolation before being committed to flight, it didn't work. It wasn't just the Soviets who took risks in those wild and wooly days, however. When an apparent fuel leak threatened to delay the launch of Explorer-I, the U.S. reply to Sputnik, brass in the bunker asked for a volunteer “without any dependants” to go out and scope out the situation beneath the fully-fuelled rocket, possibly leaking toxic hydrazine (p. 175). There are a number of factual goofs. I'm not sure the author fully understands orbital mechanics which is, granted, a pretty geeky topic, but one which matters when you're writing about space exploration. She writes that the Jupiter C re-entry experiment reached a velocity (p. 154) of 1600 mph (actually 16,000 mph), that Yuri Gararin's Vostok capsule orbited (p. 242) at 28,000 mph (actually 28,000 km/h), and that if Apollo 8's service module engine had failed to fire after arriving at the Moon (p. 325), the astronauts “would sail on forever, lost in space” (actually, they were on a “free return” trajectory, which would have taken them back to Earth even if the engine failed—the critical moment was actually when they fired the same engine to leave lunar orbit on Christmas Day 1968, which success caused James Lovell to radio after emerging from behind the Moon after the critical burn, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus”). Orbital attitude (the orientation of the craft) is confused with altitude (p. 267), and retro-rockets are described as “breaking rockets” (p. 183)—let's hope not! While these and other quibbles will irk space buffs, they shouldn't deter you from enjoying this excellent narrative. A U.S. edition is now available. The author earlier worked on the production of a BBC docu-drama also titled Space Race, which is now available on DVD. Note, however, that this is a PAL DVD with a region code of 2, and will not play unless you have a compatible DVD player and television; I have not seen this programme.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Friday, October 26, 2007
In the Post: Stars and Planets
- Ridpath, Ian and Wil Tirion. Stars & Planets. 4th. ed. London; Collins, 2007. ISBN 0-00-725120-3.
- I received a copy of this marvellous book in today's post, courtesy of author Ian Ridpath. Originally published in 1984, this fourth edition includes much new material added since the 2000 third edition, including, on pages 303 and 342, colour photographs of the total solar eclipse of 21st June 2001 taken by this humble scrivener during Fourmilab's In Darkness Africa expedition of that year at totality and in the diamond ring phase immediately thereafter. These are the first of my astrophotographs to have been published. As one who cherishes vintage technology, I should note that these photos were taken with a mechanical camera which was 28 years old at the time of the eclipse, on Kodachrome 64 film. Here are all of the eclipse photos from the expedition. The book is beautifully produced and printed, and includes monthly star charts for both northern and southern hemisphere observers, a guide of what to see and where by constellation, and descriptions of the objects accessible to the amateur astronomer with modest optical equipment. All amateur astronomers should have this reference on their bookshelves. Update: Ian Ridpath wrote to note that the book linked to above is the UK edition, which was released by Collins before the U.S. edition, scheduled for publication by Princeton University Press in February 2008 as ISBN 978-0-691-13556-4. (2007-10-27 20:20 UTC)
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Autodesk Premises Over the YearsAs part of the archives I'm assembling for Autodesk's 25th anniversary year, I've long wished I had photos of Autodesk's various premises over the decades. The next best thing is aerial views from Google Maps, so I spent some time tracking them down. Here is overhead imagery of Autodesk's various headquarters in California and the European Software Centre in Switzerland, embedded into a document using the Google Maps API (the first such application I've built, and about as simple as they get). The imagery for Switzerland is quite old—definitely prior to 2000. If you have any ground-level pictures of these locations which you'd like to share, please send them my way and I'll include them in this document. Thanks in advance!
Monday, October 22, 2007
Reading List: What's Wrong with the World
- Chesterton, Gilbert K. What's Wrong with the World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press,  1994. ISBN 0-89870-489-8.
- Writing in the first decade of the twentieth century in his inimitable riddle-like paradoxical style, Chesterton surveys the scene around him as Britain faced the new century and didn't find much to his satisfaction. A thorough traditionalist, he finds contemporary public figures, both Conservative and Progressive/Socialist, equally contemptible, essentially disagreeing only upon whether the common man should be enslaved and exploited in the interest of industry and commerce, or by an all-powerful monolithic state. He further deplores the modernist assumption, shared by both political tendencies, that once a change in society is undertaken, it must always be pursued: “You can't put the clock back”. But, as he asks, why not? “A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.” (p. 33). He urges us not to blindly believe in “progress” or “modernisation”, but rather to ask whether these changes have made things better or worse and, if worse, to undertake to reverse them. In five sections, he surveys the impact of industrial society on the common man, of imperialism upon the colonisers and colonised, of feminism upon women and the family, of education upon children, and of collectivism upon individuality and the human spirit. In each he perceives the pernicious influence of an intellectual elite upon the general population who, he believes, are far more sensible about how to live their lives than those who style themselves their betters. For a book published almost a hundred years ago, this analysis frequently seems startlingly modern (although I'm not sure that's a word Chesterton would take as a compliment) and relevant to the present-day scene. While some of the specific issues (for example, women's suffrage, teaching of classical languages in the schools, and eugenics) may seem quaint, much of the last century has demonstrated the disagreeable consequences of the “progress” he discusses and accurately anticipated. This reprint edition includes footnotes which explain Chesterton's many references to contemporary and historical figures and events which would have been familiar to his audience in 1910 but may be obscure to readers almost a century later. A free electronic edition (but without the explanatory footnotes) is available from Project Gutenberg.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Reading List: Thank You for Smoking
- Buckley, Christopher. Thank You for Smoking. New York: Random House, 1994. ISBN 0-8129-7652-5.
- Nick Naylor lies for a living. As chief public “smokesman” for the Big Tobacco lobby in Washington, it's his job to fuzz the facts, deflect the arguments, and subvert the sanctimonious neo-prohibitionists, all with a smile. As in Buckley's other political farces, it seems to be an axiom that no matter how far down you are on the moral ladder in Washington D.C., there are always an infinite number of rungs below you, all occupied, mostly by lawyers. Nick's idea of how to sidestep government advertising bans and make cigarettes cool again raises his profile to such an extent that some of those on the rungs below him start grasping for him with their claws, tentacles, and end-effectors, with humourous and delightfully ironic (at least if you aren't Nick) consequences, and then when things have gotten just about as bad as they can get, the FBI jumps in to demonstrate that things are never as bad as they can get. About a third of the way through reading this book, I happened to see the 2005 movie made from it on the illuminatus. I've never done this before—watch a movie based on a book I was currently reading. The movie was enjoyable and very funny, and seeing it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book one whit; this is a wickedly hilarious book which contains dozens of laugh out loud episodes and subplots that didn't make it into the movie.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Forty Years of ProgrammingI can't document the precise date, and the program is lost in the mists of time, but as best as I can recall, it was about forty years ago this week that I punched my first computer program onto cards and fed it into the card reader of the Case UNIVAC 1107. The program, whose purpose I have forgotten, was written in FORTRAN, which I had imbibed in one huge gulp from Daniel McCracken's book. They say that, out there for everybody, there's a book that will change your life if you're lucky enough to find it. This was the one for me, and I found it in the fall of 1967. Case Institute of Technology had a fantastically wise and prescient policy for undergraduate access to their computer facilities at the time: any student could sign up for an account which would provide up to one minute of computer time per job, with any number of jobs per day. Student job priority was below all other work, but turn-around was generally within five or ten minutes, with students feeding in their own cards and tearing their own output off the line printer. Young'uns who've grown up with gigahertz processors and gigabyte storage may find it difficult to imagine the impact of this upon larval proto-nerds who, just a decade after Sputnik, found themselves able to command a multi-million dollar machine occupying most of the first floor of a building, for whatever purpose popped into their minds, at least for a minute at a time! It was like suddenly finding yourself on that great space wheel in 2001, which wouldn't even reach the movie screen until the next year. In the Bronze Age of computing, intellectuals tended to look down upon computer programming as a “vocational skill”. I remember one of my high school teachers likening a summer course in programming to scholars in the Great Depression learning to drive bulldozers in order to to hedge their career prospects—far better to be an aerospace engineer and design the Mars exploration vessels of the mid-1970s and the colony ships of the eighties and nineties…sigh. What particularly attracted me to computing was that it was one of the few remaining areas of technology where an individual could create a complete product entirely on their own, limited only by knowledge, talent, and willingness to exert the effort required to get the job done. With the Apollo-era consensus that the future belonged to huge teams of interchangeable-part engineer modules, this was singularly refreshing. Further, while computers were hideously expensive (although Moore's Law soon took care of that), the computer was all you needed to play the software game: you could create a complete product without the multiple disparate skills required to field something tangible. To me, software was pure reason without the critique. Before the end of 1967, I'd pretty much decided that's how I wanted to spend my professional life. Worked for me. I've decided to use this anniversary as an excuse to list the principal platforms on which I've developed software over the decades.
|1967–1968||UNIVAC 1107||Exec III||FORTRAN, ALGOL, Assembler|
|1968–1973||UNIVAC 1108||Exec IV, Exec-8||Assembler|
|1976–1977||Interdata 7/16||Real-time Kernel*||Cross-assembler*|
|1977–1982||Marinchip 9900*||MDEX*, NOS/MT*||Assembler*, Pascal|
|1985–1989||Sun 2/160, 3/260 (680x0)||SunOS||C|
|1990–1994||Sun SPARCstation||SunOS, Solaris||C|
|1994–2001||SGI Indigo² (MIPS R4400) |
|2001–2007||Intel Pentium||Linux||C, Perl|
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Reading List: Rubicon
- Holland, Tom. Rubicon. London: Abacus, 2003. ISBN 0-349-11563-X.
- Such is historical focus on the final years of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Empire that it's easy to forget that the Republic survived for more than four and a half centuries prior to the chaotic events beginning with Caesar's crossing the Rubicon which precipitated its transformation into a despotism, preserving the form but not the substance of the republican institutions. When pondering analogies between Rome and present-day events, it's worth keeping in mind that representative self-government in Rome endured about twice as long as the history of the United States to date. This superb history recounts the story of the end of the Republic, placing the events in historical context and, to an extent I have never encountered in any other work, allowing the reader to perceive the personalities involved and their actions through the eyes and cultural assumptions of contemporary Romans, which were often very different from those of people today. The author demonstrates how far-flung territorial conquests and the obligations they imposed, along with the corrupting influence of looted wealth flowing into the capital, undermined the institutions of the Republic which had, after all, evolved to govern just a city-state and limited surrounding territory. Whether a republican form of government could work on a large scale was a central concern of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and this narrative graphically illustrates why their worries were well-justified and raises the question of whether a modern-day superpower can resist the same drift toward authoritarian centralism which doomed consensual government in Rome. The author leaves such inference and speculation to the reader. Apart from a few comments in the preface, he simply recounts the story of Rome as it happened and doesn't draw lessons from it for the present. And the story he tells is gripping; it may be difficult to imagine, but this work of popular history reads like a thriller (I mean that entirely as a compliment—historical integrity is never sacrificed in the interest of storytelling), and he makes the complex and often contradictory characters of figures such as Sulla, Cato, Cicero, Mark Antony, Pompey, and Marcus Brutus come alive and the shifting alliances among them comprehensible. Source citations are almost entirely to classical sources although, as the author observes, ancient sources, though often referred to as primary, are not necessarily so: for example, Plutarch was born 90 years after the assassination of Caesar. A detailed timeline lists events from the foundation of Rome in 753 B.C. through the death of Augustus in A.D. 14. A U.S. edition is now available.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Floating Point Benchmark: Smalltalk Language AddedI have posted an update to my trigonometry-intense floating point benchmark which adds Smalltalk to the list of languages in which the benchmark is implemented. A new release of the benchmark collection including Smalltalk is now available for downloading. The Smalltalk benchmark was developed and tested on GNU Smalltalk version 2.3.5 on Fedora 7 Linux; the relative performance of the various language implementations (with C taken as 1) is as follows. All benchmarks were run on the same Dell Inspiron 9100 Pentium 4 machine. All implementations of the benchmark listed below produced identical results to the last (11th) decimal place.
|C||1||GCC 3.2.3 -O3, Linux|
|Visual Basic .NET||0.866||All optimisations, Windows XP|
|FORTRAN||1.008||GNU Fortran (g77) 3.2.3 -O3, Linux|
|Free Pascal 2.2.0 -O3, Linux
GNU Pascal 2.1 (GCC 2.95.2) -O3, Linux
|Java||1.121||Sun JDK 1.5.0_04-b05, Linux|
|Visual Basic 6||1.132||All optimisations, Windows XP|
|Ada||1.401||GNAT/GCC 3.4.4 -O3, Linux|
|GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Compiled, Linux
GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Interpreted
|Smalltalk||7.59||GNU Smalltalk 2.3.5, Linux|
|Python||17.6||Python 2.3.3 -OO, Linux|
|Perl||23.6||Perl v5.8.0, Linux|
|Ruby||26.1||Ruby 1.8.3, Linux|
|Opera 8.0, Linux
Internet Explorer 6.0.2900, Windows XP
Mozilla Firefox 1.0.6, Linux
|QBasic||148.3||MS-DOS QBasic 1.1, Windows XP Console|
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Atlast Release 1.2 PostedAtlast, my FORTH-like language kernel written in portable C, which is intended to be embedded in applications to make them programmable and extensible, was one of the first software components posted on Fourmilab, having been available here since August 1995. (It was originally developed in January–February 1990, and was offered for sale for the princely sum of one Yankee greenback on the American Information Exchange in September 1992; I don't recall having sold a single copy.) I have just posted release 1.2, which includes, for the first time, complete on-line documentation in XHTML as well as the LaTeX and PDF formats available previously. Updates to the program include support for execution environments in which C string constants are read-only and fixes for warning messages and bad code generated by recent releases of GCC in optimisation mode.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight Now OnlineThe fifteenth episode in the Tom Swift adventures, Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available. This is an adventure which is, in some ways, as fresh as today's headlines. Our intrepid boy inventor undertakes to develop a stealthy aerial vehicle with long-range electromagnetic sensors in order to secure the borders of the United States (the subtitle is “On the Border for Uncle Sam”) after being persuaded by a federal agent that securing the homeland is the moral equivalent of war. Of course, a few things have changed since this book was originally published in 1912—the occupant of the White House is William Howard Taft, the border is that with Canada, the miscreants crossing it are smugglers looking to evade the protectionist duties of the United States, and the adventurers become revenuers are aided in their mission by an Indian from upstate New York named Big Foot who says, “How”, “heap”, and asks for firewater and “baccy” in return. As usual, I have corrected typographical and formatting errors I spotted while editing the text, but have deferred close proofreading until I get around to reading the book on my PDA. Consequently, corrections from eagle-eyed readers are more than welcome. Please note the comments in the main Pocket Library page before reporting archaic spelling (for example, “gasolene”, “to-morrow”, or “clew”) as an error. This book, along with the previously posted Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon brings the Tom Swift saga from its inception in 1910 to the end of 1913 for a total of sixteen books. Nine public domain Tom Swift novels remain, and I'll continue to add them to this collection at the rate of two or three a year. There are a total of forty adventures in the original Tom Swift series, but those published between 1923 and 1941 will not enter the public domain until 95 years after their copyright date (assuming the law isn't changed before then to be even more absurd), so none of these can be posted before 2019.
Friday, October 5, 2007
Reading List: Nanny State
- Harsanyi, David. Nanny State. New York: Broadway Books, 2007. ISBN 0-7679-2432-0.
- In my earlier review of The Case Against Adolescence, I concluded by observing that perhaps the end state of the “progressive” vision of the future is “being back in high school—forever”. Reading this short book (just 234 pages of main text, with 55 pages of end notes, bibliography, and index) may lead you to conclude that view was unduly optimistic. As the author documents, seemingly well-justified mandatory seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws in the 1980s punched through the barrier which used to deflect earnest (or ambitious) politicians urging “We have to do something”. That barrier, the once near-universal consensus that “It isn't the government's business”, had been eroded to a paper-thin membrane by earlier encroachments upon individual liberty and autonomy. Once breached, a torrent of infantilising laws, regulations, and litigation was unleashed, much of it promoted by single-issue advocacy groups and trial lawyers with a direct financial interest in the outcome, and often backed by nonexistent or junk science. The consequence, as the slippery slope became a vertical descent in the nineties and oughties, is the emergence of a society which seems to be evolving into a giant kindergarten, where children never have the opportunity to learn to be responsible adults, and nominal adults are treated as production and consumption modules, wards of a state which regulates every aspect of their behaviour, and surveils their every action. It seems to me that the author has precisely diagnosed the fundamental problem: that once you accept the premise that the government can intrude into the sphere of private actions for an individual's own good (or, Heaven help us, “for the children”), then there is no limit whatsoever on how far it can go. Why, you might have security cameras going up on every street corner, cities banning smoking in the outdoors, and police ticketing people for listening to their iPods while crossing the street—oh, wait. Having left the U.S. in 1991, I was unaware of the extent of the present madness and the lack of push-back by reasonable people and the citizens who are seeing their scope of individual autonomy shrink with every session of the legislature. Another enlightening observation is that this is not, as some might think, entirely a phenomenon promoted by paternalist collectivists and manifest primarily in moonbat caves such as Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. The puritanical authoritarians of the right are just as willing to get into the act, as egregious examples from “red states” such as Texas and Alabama illustrate. Just imagine how many more intrusions upon individual choice and lifestyle will be coming if the U.S. opts for socialised medicine. It's enough to make you go out and order a Hamdog!
Monday, October 1, 2007
Reading List: The Last Colony
- Scalzi, John. The Last Colony. New York: Tor, 2007. ISBN 0-7653-1697-8.
- This novel concludes the Colonial Union trilogy begun with the breakthrough Old Man's War, for which the author won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and its sequel, The Ghost Brigades, which fleshed out the shadowy Special Forces and set the stage for a looming three-way conflict among the Colonial Union, the Conclave of more than four hundred alien species, and the Earth. As this novel begins, John Perry and Jane Sagan, whom we met in the first two volumes, have completed their military obligations and, now back in normal human bodies, have married and settled into new careers on a peaceful human colony world. They are approached by a Colonial Defense Forces general with an intriguing proposition: to become administrators of a new colony, the first to be formed by settlers from other colony worlds instead of emigrants from Earth. As we learnt in The Ghost Brigades, when it comes to deceit, disinformation, manipulation, and corruption, the Colonial Union is a worthy successor to its historical antecedents, the Soviet Union and the European Union, and the newly minted administrators quickly discover that all is not what it appears to be and before long find themselves in a fine pickle indeed. The story moves swiftly and plausibly toward a satisfying conclusion I would never have guessed even twenty pages from the end. In the acknowledgements at the end, the author indicates that this book concludes the adventures of John Perry and Jane Sagan and, for the moment, the Colonial Union universe. He says he may revisit that universe someday, but at present has no plans to do so. So while we wait to see where he goes next, here's a neatly wrapped up and immensely entertaining trilogy to savour. By the way, both Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades are now available in inexpensive mass-market paperback editions. Unlike The Ghost Brigades, which can stand on its own without the first novel, you'll really enjoy this book and understand the characters much more if you've read the first two volumes before.