Before electronic computers had actually been built, Alan Turing mathematically proved a fundamental and profound property of them which has been exploited in innumerable ways as they developed and became central to many of our technologies and social interactions. A computer of sufficient complexity, which is, in fact, not very complex at all, can simulate any other computer or, in fact, any deterministic physical process whatsoever, as long as it is understood sufficiently to model in computer code and the system being modelled does not exceed the capacity of the computer—or the patience of the person running the simulation. Indeed, some of the first applications of computers were in modelling physical processes such as the flight of ballistic projectiles and the hydrodynamics of explosions. Today, computer modelling and simulation have become integral to the design process for everything from high-performance aircraft to toys, and many commonplace objects in the modern world could not have been designed without the aid of computer modelling. It certainly changed my life.
Almost as soon as there were computers, programmers realised that their ability to simulate, well…anything made them formidable engines for playing games. Computer gaming was originally mostly a furtive and disreputable activity, perpetrated by gnome-like programmers on the graveyard shift while the computer was idle, having finished the “serious” work paid for by unimaginative customers (who actually rose before the crack of noon!). But as the microelectronics revolution slashed the size and price of computers to something individuals could afford for their own use (or, according to the computer Puritans of the previous generations, abuse), computer gaming came into its own. Some modern computer games have production and promotion budgets larger than Hollywood movies, and their characters and story lines have entered the popular culture. As computer power has grown exponentially, games have progressed from tic-tac-toe, through text-based adventures, simple icon character video games, to realistic three dimensional simulated worlds in which the players explore a huge world, interact with other human players and non-player characters (endowed with their own rudimentary artificial intelligence) within the game, and in some games and simulated worlds, have the ability to extend the simulation by building their own objects with which others can interact. If your last experience with computer games was the Colossal Cave Adventure or Pac-Man, try a modern game or virtual world—you may be amazed.... [Read More]
Vasili Mitrokhin joined the Soviet intelligence service as a foreign intelligence officer in 1948, at a time when the MGB (later to become the KGB) and the GRU were unified into a single service called the Committee of Information. By the time he was sent to his first posting abroad in 1952, the two services had split and Mitrokhin stayed with the MGB. Mitrokhin’s career began in the paranoia of the final days of Stalin’s regime, when foreign intelligence officers were sent on wild goose chases hunting down imagined Trotskyist and Zionist conspirators plotting against the regime. He later survived the turbulence after the death of Stalin and the execution of MGB head Lavrenti Beria, and the consolidation of power under his successors.
During the Khrushchev years, Mitrokhin became disenchanted with the regime, considering Khrushchev an uncultured barbarian whose banning of avant garde writers betrayed the tradition of Russian literature. He began to entertain dissident thoughts, not hoping for an overthrow of the Soviet regime but rather its reform by a new generation of leaders untainted by the legacy of Stalin. These thoughts were reinforced by the crushing of the reform-minded regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and his own observation of how his service, now called the KGB, manipulated the Soviet justice system to suppress dissent within the Soviet Union. He began to covertly listen to Western broadcasts and read samizdat publications by Soviet dissidents.... [Read More]
Lulajże, Jezuniu, “Lullaby, Little Jesus” is a traditional Polish Christmas carol dating from the nineteenth century, or who knows, perhaps earlier. Here is a lyric in original and in translation; very homey, yes?
In the near future, autonomous vehicles, “autocars”, are available from a number of major automobile manufacturers. The self-driving capability, while not infallible, has been approved by regulatory authorities after having demonstrated that it is, on average, safer than the population of human drivers on the road and not subject to human frailties such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, while tired, or distracted by others in the car or electronic gadgets. While self-driving remains a luxury feature with which a minority of cars on the road are equipped, regulators are confident that as it spreads more widely and improves over time, the highway accident rate will decline.
But placing an algorithm and sensors in command of a vehicle with a mass of more than a tonne hurtling down the road at 100 km per hour or faster is not just a formidable technical problem, it is one with serious and unavoidable moral implications. These come into stark focus when, in an incident on a highway near Seattle, an autocar swerves to avoid a tree crashing down on the highway, hitting and killing a motorcyclist in an adjacent lane of which the car’s sensors must have been aware. The car appears to have made a choice, valuing the lives of its passengers: a mother and her two children, over that of the motorcyclist. What really happened, and how the car decided what to do in that split-second, is opaque, because the software controlling it was, as all such software, proprietary and closed to independent inspection and audit by third parties. It’s one thing to acknowledge that self-driving vehicles are safer, as a whole, than those with humans behind the wheel, but entirely another to cede to them the moral agency of life and death on the highway. Should an autocar value the lives of its passengers over those of others? What if there were a sole passenger in the car and two on the motorcycle? And who is liable for the death of the motorcyclist: the auto manufacturer, the developers of the software, the owner of car, the driver who switched it into automatic mode, or the regulators who approved its use on public roads? The case was headed for court, and all would be watching the precedents it might establish.... [Read More]
The college football postseason has finally arrived! Beginning this Friday, December 20, 2019, teams from coast-to-coast and border-to-border will face off for championship glory. I wish my Texas Tech Red Raiders were playing, but they have not played in a bowl since 2017 and haven’t had the pleasure of winning one since 2013. But at least Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars are playing the Air Force Falcons in the Cheez-It Bowl. Go Cougs!
So, what teams will you all be rooting for over the holidays? Good luck to all, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and keep calm and cheer on! 🎄 😎 📣... [Read More]
People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not as superficial as Thought. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.... [Read More]
One of the puzzles noted by observers of the contemporary political and cultural scene is the division of the population into two factions, (called in the sloppy terminology of the United States) “liberal” and “conservative”, and that if you pick a member from either faction by observing his or her position on one of the divisive issues of the time, you can, with a high probability of accuracy, predict their preferences on all of a long list of other issues which do not, on the face of it, seem to have very much to do with one another. For example, here is a list of present-day hot-button issues, presented in no particular order.
Health care, socialised medicine
Climate change, renewable energy
Higher education subsidies, debt relief
Free speech (hate speech laws, Internet censorship)
Deficit spending, debt, and entitlement reform
Tax policy, redistribution
Foreign interventions, military spending
What a motley collection of topics! About the only thing they have in common is that the omnipresent administrative super-state has become involved in them in one way or another, and therefore partisans of policies affecting them view it important to influence the state’s action in their regard. And yet, pick any one, tell me what policies you favour, and I’ll bet I can guess at where you come down on at least eight of the other ten. What’s going on?... [Read More]
This is the second volume in Victor Klemperer’s diaries of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Volume 1 covers the years from 1933 through 1941, in which the Nazis seized and consolidated their power, began to increasingly persecute the Jewish population, and rearm in preparation for their military conquests which began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939.
I described that book as “simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening”. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.... [Read More]
This document was released to the general public by the United States War Department on August 12th, 1945, just days after nuclear weapons had been dropped on Japan (Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th). The author, Prof. Henry D. Smyth of Princeton University, had worked on the Manhattan Project since early 1941, was involved in a variety of theoretical and practical aspects of the effort, and possessed security clearances which gave him access to all of the laboratories and production facilities involved in the project. In May, 1944, Smyth, who had suggested such a publication, was given the go ahead by the Manhattan Project’s Military Policy Committee to prepare an unclassified summary of the bomb project. This would have a dual purpose: to disclose to citizens and taxpayers what had been done on their behalf, and to provide scientists and engineers involved in the project a guide to what they could discuss openly in the postwar period: if it was in the “Smyth Report” (as it came to be called), it was public information, otherwise mum’s the word.
The report is a both an introduction to the physics underlying nuclear fission and its use in both steady-state reactors and explosives, production of fissile material (both separation of reactive Uranium-235 from the much more abundant Uranium-238 and production of Plutonium-239 in nuclear reactors), and the administrative history and structure of the project. Viewed as a historical document, the report is as interesting in what it left out as what was disclosed. Essentially none of the key details discovered and developed by the Manhattan Project which might be of use to aspiring bomb makers appear here. The key pieces of information which were not known to interested physicists in 1940 before the curtain of secrecy descended upon anything related to nuclear fission were inherently disclosed by the very fact that a fission bomb had been built, detonated, and produced a very large explosive yield.... [Read More]
The term “Black Friday” arose in 1960s Philadelphia when police officers’ leave was cancelled to deal with the crowds, traffic, and disorder that often followed the massive post-Thanksgiving Day shopping event. Now, we add a new chapter to Black Friday history with a massive online book sale.
Some of today’s top indie authors are offering great deals on their work for Black Friday/Cyber Monday – all these books are either $0.99 each or free (set by the author or publisher, so please confirm before buying). There’s something for everyone: adventure, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and above all, great story telling.
In 1966, the author graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He had no immediate job prospects or career plans. He thought he might be interested in computer programming due to a love of solving puzzles, but he had never programmed a computer. When asked, in one of numerous job interviews, how he would go about writing a program to alphabetise a list of names, he admitted he had no idea. One day, walking home from yet another interview, he passed an unimpressive brick building with a sign identifying it as the “MIT Instrumentation Laboratory”. He’d heard a little about the place and, on a lark, walked in and asked if they were hiring. The receptionist handed him a long application form, which he filled out, and was then immediately sent to interview with a personnel officer. Eyles was amazed when the personnel man seemed bent on persuading him to come to work at the Lab. After reference checking, he was offered a choice of two jobs: one in the “analysis group” (whatever that was), and another on the team developing computer software for landing the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) on the Moon. That sounded interesting, and the job had another benefit attractive to a 21 year old just graduating from university: it came with deferment from the military draft, which was going into high gear as U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepened.
Near the start of the Apollo project, MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, led by the legendary “Doc” Charles Stark Draper, won a sole source contract to design and program the guidance system for the Apollo spacecraft, which came to be known as the “Apollo Primary Guidance, Navigation, and Control System” (PGNCS, pronounced “pings”). Draper and his laboratory had pioneered inertial guidance systems for aircraft, guided missiles, and submarines, and had in-depth expertise in all aspects of the challenging problem of enabling the Apollo spacecraft to navigate from the Earth to the Moon, land on the Moon, and return to the Earth without any assistance from ground-based assets. In a normal mission, it was expected that ground-based tracking and computers would assist those on board the spacecraft, but in the interest of reliability and redundancy it was required that completely autonomous navigation would permit accomplishing the mission.... [Read More]
The author was born in 1921 and grew up in Southern California. He was obsessed with aviation from an early age, wangling a ride in a plane piloted by a friend of his father (an open cockpit biplane) at age six. He built and flew many model airplanes and helped build the first gasoline-powered model plane in Southern California, with a home-built engine. The enterprising lad’s paper route included a local grass field airport, and he persuaded the owner to trade him a free daily newspaper (delivery boys always received a few extra) for informal flying lessons. By the time he turned thirteen, young Scott (he never went by his first name, “Albert”) had accumulated several hours of flying time.
In the midst of the Great Depression, his father’s milk processing business failed, and he decided to sell out everything in California, buy a 120 acre run-down dairy farm in rural Washington state, and start over. Patiently, taking an engineer’s approach to the operation: recording everything, controlling costs, optimising operations, and with the entire family pitching in on the unceasing chores, the ramshackle property was built into a going concern and then a showplace.... [Read More]
We live in an age where the canon of Western Civilization is under fire. Those who oppose it want freedom from the rules laid down by it. When you think about it chaos has a lot freedom because you get to do almost anything. Nowadays people can pick their “truth”. No one has a right to harsh their mellow. If you can believe “you can fly” who am I to say you are not a bird. It sounds so nice but is it.
In the military the expendables are cannon fodder on the battle field. In this post modern world the expendables are fodder of the destruction of long held systems that kept society going. As way of explanation, there was a department store in South Korea* that fell down because the person building it wanted to add things by cutting away at the structure. More escalators and restaurants. It opened and then lasted 5 years. It looked good until the day over 500 people died. I think in the same way eating away at the structures will not cause immediate damage but the structure will come down. And when it does there will be plenty of casualties. Of course, the blame will go to the laws of physics being repressive and bigoted. (That last sentence was a joke, Damocles.)... [Read More]
Ever since the emergence of the personal computer software market in the 1970s, vendors mostly adopted an “outright sale” model of licensing. The customer purchased the product, often originally in a shrink-wrapped box, which delivered the software on media such as floppy discs or CD-ROM, along with a license which (usually) conferred the perpetual right to use the software on one computer. This model, adopted from the consumer electronics industry, is not a particularly good fit for the software business. Unlike a television set or even a personal computer, software continues to evolve over time, as new features are added, support for new and more capable hardware is integrated, changes are made to maintain compatibility with the underlying software platform (operating system, window manager, database package, etc.), and modifications are made to comply with and support evolving industry standards.
All of this requires ongoing investment by the software vendor, and if revenue is received just once, with the initial purchase, it’s difficult to see how this can be funded, especially once the period of rapid growth comes to an end and a product obtains a large market share with an installed base which have already paid for it. Trying to persuade users to buy an entire new product and discard the old one is a non-starter, except for some very low price point products such as games (where the update is usually positioned as a new edition in a series). So, vendors mostly tried to persuade their installed base to pay for updates, at a fraction of the price of the original software, and customers constantly pushed back about the cost of the updates and often continued to use ancient versions of the software, which caused the vendor headaches and customers difficulty when older versions of a program wouldn’t read files written by the current release.... [Read More]