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Friday, July 18, 2008

Flying Horse

Click image for an enlargement

Photographed earlier today at the Concours Hippique Lignières, of which Fourmilab is one of the sponsors.

Posted at 00:12 Permalink

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nuclear Ninety North: Fourmilab Unattended 2008-07-19 to 2008-08-06

I'll be away from Fourmilab and deprived of Internet connectivity for reasons of latitude from July 19th through August 6th, 2008. I'm going to the North Pole—no, really! Fourmilab's third “Holiday in Hell” solar eclipse expedition (the first two: Iran 1999, Zambia 2001) will set sail (or, more precisely, split nuclei) as we depart Murmansk for the North Pole, then turn around and head south to observe (cloud cover permitting) the total Solar Eclipse of August 1st, 2008 from Novaya Zemlya, where on October 30th, 1961 Tsar Bomba was exploded with a yield of 50 megatons of TNT.


This may be our most outrageous eclipse expedition yet, but hey, it's carbon neutral! We'll head north on board the Russian icebreaker Fifty Years Since Victory (50 лет Победы). Powered by two nuclear reactors, it consumes no icky petroleum fuel, and while perhaps occasionally running over a polar bear who didn't hear us coming, at least it doesn't shrink their ice floes by belching carbon dioxide into the arctic atmosphere.

Here's the itinerary of the expedition.

If this expedition ends well (one always worries about maiden voyages into the ice!), I'll post pictures, including eclipse photos if the cloud gods smile upon us, when I get back. I'm looking forward to waving at the Web Cam.

Obviously, I'll not respond to E-mail inquiries until I get back. Should Fourmilab go down while I'm away (despite fanatic redundancy to avoid that happening), so it goes—I won't be aware of it nor able to intervene until I return.

Posted at 00:17 Permalink

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Reading List: World War IV

Podhoretz, Norman. World War IV. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-52221-2.
Whether you agree with it or not, here is one of the clearest expositions of the “neoconservative” (a term the author, who is one of the type specimens, proudly uses to identify himself) case for the present conflict between Western civilisation and the forces of what he identifies as “Islamofascism”, an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology which is entirely distinct from Islam, the religion. The author considers the Cold War to have been World War III, and hence the present and likely as protracted a conflict, as World War IV. He deems it to be as existential a struggle for civilisation against the forces of tyranny as any of the previous three wars.

If you're sceptical of such claims (as am I, being very much an economic determinist who finds it difficult to believe a region of the world whose exports, apart from natural resources discovered and extracted largely by foreigners, are less than those of Finland, can truly threaten the fountainhead of the technologies and products without which its residents would remain in the seventh century utopia they seem to idolise), read Chapter Two for the contrary view: it is argued that since 1970, a series of increasingly provocative attacks were made against the West, not in response to Western actions but due to unreconcilably different world-views. Each indication of weakness by the West only emboldened the aggressors and escalated the scale of subsequent attacks.

The author argues the West is engaged in a multi-decade conflict with its own survival at stake, in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply campaigns. This war, like the Cold War, will be fought on many levels: not just military, but also proxy conflicts, propaganda, covert action, economic warfare, and promotion of the Western model as the solution to the problems of states imperiled by Islamofascism. There is some discussion in the epilogue of the risk posed to Europe by the radicalisation of its own burgeoning Muslim population while its indigenes are in a demographic death spiral, but for the most part the focus is on democratising the Middle East, not the creeping threat to democracy in the West by an unassimilated militant immigrant population which a feckless, cringing political class is unwilling to confront.

This book is well written and argued, but colour me unpersuaded. Instead of spending decades spilling blood and squandering fortune in a region of the world which has been trouble for every empire foolish enough to try to subdue it over the last twenty centuries, why not develop domestic energy sources to render the slimy black stuff in the ground there impotent and obsolete, secure the borders against immigration from there (except those candidates who demonstrate themselves willing to assimilate to the culture of the West), and build a wall around the place and ignore what happens inside? Works for me.

Posted at 23:45 Permalink

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Click image for an enlargement.

Au Landeron, yesterday afternoon: are the car and moto real or just painted?

Posted at 03:42 Permalink

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reading List: Backyard Ballistics

Gurstelle, William. Backyard Ballistics. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-55652-375-5
Responsible adults who have a compelling need to launch potatoes 200 metres downrange at high velocity, turn common paper matches into solid rockets, fire tennis balls high into the sky with duct taped together potato chip cans (potatoes again!) and a few drops of lighter fluid, launch water balloons against the aggressor with nothing more than surgical tubing and a little muscle power, engender UFO reports with shimmering dry cleaner bag hot air balloons, and more, will find the detailed instructions they need for such diversions in this book. As in his subsequent Whoosh Boom Splat (December 2007), the author provides detailed directions for fabricating these engines of entertainment from, in most cases, PVC pipe, and the scientific background for each device and suggestions for further study by the intrepid investigator who combines the curiosity of the intuitive experimentalist with the native fascination of the third chimpanzee for things that go flash and bang.

If you live in Southern California, I'd counsel putting the Cincinnati Fire Kite and Dry Cleaner Bag Balloon experiments on hold until after the next big rain.

Posted at 23:53 Permalink

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reading List: The Electric Life of Michael Faraday

Hirshfeld, Alan. The Electric Life of Michael Faraday. New York: Walker and Company, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8027-1470-1.
Of post-Enlightenment societies, one of the most rigidly structured by class and tradition was that of Great Britain. Those aspiring to the life of the mind were overwhelmingly the well-born, educated in the classics at Oxford or Cambridge, with the wealth and leisure to pursue their interests on their own. The career of Michael Faraday stands as a monument to what can be accomplished, even in such a stultifying system, by the pure power of intellect, dogged persistence, relentless rationality, humility, endless fascination with the intricacies of creation, and confidence that it was ultimately knowable through clever investigation.

Faraday was born in 1791, the third child of a blacksmith who had migrated to London earlier that year in search of better prospects, which he never found due to fragile health. In his childhood, Faraday's family occasionally got along only thanks to the charity of members of the fundamentalist church to which they belonged. At age 14, Faraday was apprenticed to a French émigré bookbinder, setting himself on the path to a tradesman's career. But Faraday, while almost entirely unschooled, knew how to read, and read he did—as many of the books which passed through the binder's shop as he could manage. As with many who read widely, Faraday eventually came across a book that changed his life, The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts, and from the pragmatic and inspirational advice in that volume, along with the experimental approach to science he learned from Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry, Faraday developed his own philosophy of scientific investigation and began to do his own experiments with humble apparatus in the bookbinder's shop.

Faraday seemed to be on a trajectory which would frustrate his curiosity forever amongst the hammers, glue, and stitches of bookbindery when, thanks to his assiduous note-taking at science lectures, his employer passing on his notes, and a providential vacancy, he found himself hired as the assistant to the eminent Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in London. Learning chemistry and the emerging field of electrochemistry at the side of the master, he developed the empirical experimental approach which would inform all of his subsequent work.

Faraday originally existed very much in Davy's shadow, even serving as his personal valet as well as scientific assistant on an extended tour of the Continent, but slowly (and over Davy's opposition) rose to become a Fellow of the Royal Institution and director of its laboratory. Seeking to shore up the shaky finances of the Institution, in 1827 he launched the Friday Evening Discourses, public lectures on a multitude of scientific topics by Faraday and other eminent scientists, which he would continue to supervise until 1862.

Although trained as a chemist, and having made his reputation in that field, his electrochemical investigations with Davy had planted in his mind the idea that electricity was not a curious phenomenon demonstrated in public lectures involving mysterious “fluids”, but an essential component in understanding the behaviour of matter. In 1831, he turned his methodical experimental attention to the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and within months had discovered electromagnetic induction: that an electric current was induced in a conductor only by a changing magnetic field: the principle used by every electrical generator and transformer in use today. He built the first dynamo, using a spinning copper disc between the poles of a strong magnet, and thereby demonstrated the conversion of mechanical energy into electricity for the first time. Faraday's methodical, indefatigable investigations, failures along with successes, were chronicled in a series of papers eventually collected into the volume Experimental Researches in Electricity, which is considered to be one of the best narratives ever written of science as it is done.

Knowing little mathematics, Faraday expressed the concepts he discovered in elegant prose. His philosophy of science presaged that of Karl Popper and the positivists of the next century—he considered all theories as tentative, advocated continued testing of existing theories in an effort to falsify them and thereby discover new science beyond them, and he had no use whatsoever for the unobservable: he detested concepts such as “action at a distance”, which he considered mystical obfuscation. If some action occurred, there must be some physical mechanism which causes it, and this led him to formulate what we would now call field theory: that physical lines of force extend from electrically charged objects and magnets through apparently empty space, and it is the interaction of objects with these lines of force which produces the various effects he had investigated. This flew in the face of the scientific consensus of the time, and while universally admired for his experimental prowess, many regarded Faraday's wordy arguments as verging on the work of a crank. It wasn't until 1857 that the ageing Faraday made the acquaintance of the young James Clerk Maxwell, who had sent him a copy of a paper in which Maxwell made his first attempt to express Faraday's lines of force in rigorous mathematical form. By 1864 Maxwell had refined his model into his monumental field theory, which demonstrated that light was simply a manifestation of the electromagnetic field, something that Faraday had long suspected (he wrote repeatedly of “ray-vibrations”) but had been unable to prove.

The publication of Maxwell's theory marked a great inflection point between the old physics of Faraday and the new, emerging, highly mathematical style of Maxwell and his successors. While discovering the mechanism through experiment was everything to Faraday, correctly describing the behaviour and correctly predicting the outcome of experiments with a set of equations was all that mattered in the new style, which made no effort to explain why the equations worked. As Heinrich Hertz said, “Maxwell's theory is Maxwell's equations” (p. 190). Michael Faraday lived in an era in which a humble-born person with no formal education or knowledge of advanced mathematics could, purely through intelligence, assiduous self-study, clever and tireless experimentation with simple apparatus he made with his own hands, make fundamental discoveries about the universe and rise to the top rank of scientists. Those days are now forever gone, and while we now know vastly more than those of Faraday's time, one also feels we've lost something. Aldous Huxley once remarked, “Even if I could be Shakespeare, I think I should still choose to be Faraday.” This book is an excellent way to appreciate how science felt when it was all new and mysterious, acquaint yourself with one of the most admirable characters in its history, and understand why Huxley felt as he did.

Posted at 21:01 Permalink

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Obama's America

I've written before here and here about the impact on the politics of the United States as the “millennial generation”—those born between 1980 and 2000—enter the public arena. The stunning rise of Barack Obama to be the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party may be seen as the first decisive consequence of the coming millennial domination of politics there. Certainly the demographics of Obama's supporters is strongly tilted toward the young.

The Obama campaign has been long on style and inspiration and short on specific policy prescriptions, and recently has veered toward the centre on a number of points which were strongly defended during the primary campaign. There has been relatively little outrage among Obama's vehement supporters at these apparent sell-outs, largely, I suspect, because they believe that this running toward the centre is essential to win in the general election, and that once elected, Obama will govern as the hard left ideologue they believe (or at least hope) him to be. It has seemed to me for some time that 2008, the fortieth anniversary of 1968, when the radical wave last peaked and broke, is seen by the aging radicals of the Sixties and their intellectual heirs as the one great chance remaining in their lifetimes to enact radical, transformative change in the U.S., and Barack Obama, a radical by instinct, whose eloquence and thin paper trail allows him to gain the support of centrists who would be repelled were his actual agenda known to them, the vehicle to achieve that change.

If my gut instinct about Obama is correct, and he does manage to win election, along with a Democratic majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the U.S. will be poised for its sharpest veer to the Left since the New Deal, and perhaps in its history. What will the consequences of this be? Well, nobody knows, but that doesn't deter folks like me (who, unlike the millennials, remember the 1960s and 1970s) from making predictions. So here, in the spirit of Harry Shultz's New Year predictions, are my prognostications for the U.S. and world scene at the end of the first Obama administration. Now, some of these are tongue in cheek (although I suspect readers may differ in their estimation of which), but they all follow from my expectations of how Obama and a unified Democratic majority will govern. Some readers may consider a majority of these items as progress, while others will deem them pernicious. All I'm trying to do here is forecast objective events.

Posted at 23:13 Permalink

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Amber Waves of Grain, Purple Mountain Majesties

Click image for an enlargement.

Taken earlier today east of Lignières, about here, looking south. The Alps are visible in the distance. This is almost precisely the location where I inadvertently water tested various consumer electronics gadgets about a month ago.

Posted at 20:37 Permalink

Friday, July 4, 2008

Reading List: Shakespeare

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare. London: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-719790-3.
This small, thin (200 page) book contains just about every fact known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare, which isn't very much. In fact, if the book restricted itself only to those facts, and excluded descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Shakespeare's contemporaries, actors and theatres of the time, and the many speculations about Shakespeare and the deliciously eccentric characters who sometimes promoted them, it would probably be a quarter of its present length.

For a figure whose preeminence in English literature is rarely questioned today, and whose work shaped the English language itself—2035 English words appear for the first time in the works of Shakespeare, of which about 800 continue in common use today, including critical, frugal, horrid, vast, excellent, lonely, leapfrog, and zany (pp. 112–113)—very little is known apart from the content of his surviving work. We know the dates of his birth, marriage, and death, something of his parents, siblings, wife, and children, but nothing of his early life, education, travel, reading, or any of the other potential sources of the extraordinary knowledge and insight into the human psyche which informs his work. Between the years 1585 and 1592 he drops entirely from sight: no confirmed historical record has been found, then suddenly he pops up in London, at the peak of his powers, writing, producing, and performing in plays and quickly gaining recognition as one of the preeminent dramatists of his time. We don't even know (although there is no shortage of speculation) which plays were his early works and which were later: there is no documentary evidence for the dates of the plays nor the order in which they were written, apart from a few contemporary references which allow placing a play as no later than the mention of it. We don't even know how he spelt or pronounced his name: of six extant signatures believed to be in his hand, no two spell his name the same way, and none uses the “Shakespeare” spelling in use today.

Shakespeare's plays brought him fame and a substantial fortune during his life, but plays were regarded as ephemeral things at the time, and were the property of the theatrical company which commissioned them, not the author, so no authoritative editions of the plays were published during his life. Had it not been for the efforts of his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, who published the “First Folio” edition of his collected works seven years after his death, it is probable that the eighteen plays which first appeared in print in that edition would have been lost to history, with subsequent generations deeming Shakespeare, based upon surviving quarto editions of uneven (and sometimes laughable) quality of a few plays, one of a number of Elizabethan playwrights but not the towering singular figure he is now considered to be. (One wonders if there were others of Shakespeare's stature who were not as lucky in the dedication of their friends, of whose work we shall never know.) Nobody really knows how many copies of the First Folio were printed, but guesses run between 750 and 1000. Around 300 copies in various states of completeness have survived to the present, and around eighty copies are in a single room at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., about two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Now maybe decades of computer disasters have made me obsessively preoccupied with backup and geographical redundancy, but that just makes me shudder. Is there anybody there who wonders whether this is really a good idea? After all, the last time I was a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I spotted an ACME MISSILE BOMB right in plain sight!

A final chapter is devoted to theories that someone other than the scantily documented William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. The author points out the historical inconsistencies and implausibilities of most frequently proffered claimants, and has a good deal of fun with some of the odder of the theorists, including the exquisitely named J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman, and George M. Battey.

Bill Bryson fans who have come to cherish his lighthearted tone and quirky digressions on curious details and personalities from such works as A Short History of Nearly Everything (November 2007) will not be disappointed. If one leaves the book not knowing a great deal about Shakespeare, because so little is actually known, it is with a rich sense of having been immersed in the England of his time and the golden age of theatre to which he so mightily contributed.

A U.S. edition is available, but at this writing only in hardcover.

Posted at 22:37 Permalink

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Digging Up the Street: Fourmilab Fast Fibre

Click image for “digging up the street” gallery.

In the late 1960s, I recall Prof. William C. Lynch explaining why it made business sense for AT&T to fund Bell Laboratories so generously. The basic and applied research performed there had, among other things, allowed the Bell System to squeeze more and more communications traffic onto their existing physical infrastructure. “Technology may be costly,” he said, “but nothing is as expensive as digging up a street.” But, notwithstanding technological miracles which today allow multi-megabit per second broadband Internet service to be delivered over copper telephone lines which, in 1969, typically provided 110 to 300 bits per second service, sometimes you just have to dig up the street.

For many years, Fourmilab's Internet connection has been via a symmetrical 2 Mbit/sec link over a copper pair. (Note that while many DSL links are faster, at least inbound, this service provides the critical outbound bandwidth required for a Web server. In excess of 95% of Fourmilab's traffic is outbound. Also, a leased line connection provides a much higher level of service and guaranteed bandwidth to the Internet backbone.) This was the fastest service available via a copper pair given the length of the run to the central office. While I've received few complaints about the performance of the site, it was clear that the link was approaching saturation at peak periods, and for several years I'd avoided hosting videos and other large files which would further increase the traffic. I could have doubled the bandwidth by installing a second leased line, but that would have almost doubled my monthly connect costs, which are already uncomfortably high.

In discussing options with Fourmilab's Internet Service Provider (ISP), Cablecom, they suggested that installing a fibre optic link might be the most attractive option, and offered to prepare a proposal for a fibre link with 20 Mbit/sec bandwidth—ten times the current speed—with the hardware and civil engineering costs amortised in monthly connectivity fees over a five year service contract.

When the bid came in, I was amazed to see that for an 18% increase in what I was currently paying, I could increase symmetrical bandwidth tenfold. The physical fibre link would permit upgrading to 100 Mbit/sec symmetrical on a single 9 µm monomode fibre (full-duplex is achieved by using different light frequencies for uplink and downlink), and with 12 fibres in the cable, bandwidth could ultimately be expanded to 1 Gbit/sec using 10 fibres with 2 spares, although that's way beyond both my requirements and budget. There was an existing fibre connection to the Maison de Commune in Lignières, which is almost exactly 1 kilometre from Fourmilab as the telephone cables run. Installing the fibre would, then, involve digging up the street in various places between here and there and pulling the fibre cable, then installing the fibre patch panel in the Fourmilab communications rack and bonding the fibre to an outbound fibre at the Maison de Commune. The Digging Up the Street photo gallery shows the various excavations involved in this process. The entire job took about five days, off and on, with another day for the internal cable pull and yet another for the fibre termination at each end.

When it came time to test the cable, no light came out! Subsequent investigation with an optical time-domain reflectometer showed the fault to be 1068 metres from the Fourmilab end, indicating it was somewhere between the Maison de Commune and the hub in La Neuveville, not in the newly installed cable to Fourmilab. The cable guy said that this was most often due to rats gnawing into the fibre cables, which are filled with a gel seemingly made of rat candy. Newer cables, including the one just installed, have a layer of fibreglass armour inside the jacket which fragments when chewed into, irritating the tender little lips and tongues of the vermin and deterring their depredations. The break was fixed the next day.

After a few more rounds of configuration tweaks, the big switch-over occurred yesterday afternoon, with the first Web access arriving over the fibre connection on 2008-07-01 at 12:22:55 UTC. Since then Fourmilab has been running at 20 Mbit/sec over the fibre, so congestion at peak periods should now be a thing of the past. Accessing the Web over the fibre link actually doesn't feel much different than using the 3500/512 Kbit/sec ADSL line I'd been using before to avoid contending with the traffic on the leased line. I suspect that most sites one accesses simply do not have end-to-end bandwidth much greater than 3.5 Mbit/sec for an individual connection or throttle client traffic to limit the impact of bandwidth hogs on other requesters.

Any folks out there with really fast Internet connections who want to see how the new fast fibre Fourmilab actually performs are invited to try a command-line FTP download of the 17 megabyte binary file with URL:
Please let me know, via the feedback button, what mean transfer rate you obtained. Thanks in advance!

Update: There appears to have been a configuration problem in the upstream connection to the backbone which was resolved around 10:00 UTC on 2008-07-03. After the fix I downloaded a 1.2 Gb video file from CERN at a mean transfer rate of 2.01 megabytes per second (as reported by Wget). This is an after-overhead sustained bit rate of about 16 Mbit/sec, so it appears that the connection is now running at 20 Mbit/sec end to end. (2008-07-03 11:27 UTC)

Update: A very nice, free, and extremely stylish bandwidth test is available at Speedtest.net. Using it to test with servers in Geneva and Basel confirms that Fourmilab's Internet connectivity is now running at 20 Mbit/sec bidirectional. Thanks to those who sent bandwidth measurements; there isn't a need for any more. (2008-07-03 17:29 UTC)

Posted at 22:10 Permalink