Category Archives: Technology

The Tale of the Scale


Since January I’ve been dieting, trying to trim back to a more modest size. To date I’ve lost twenty pounds. No, I don’t want to know where they have gone. No, don’t try to send your extra pounds to me either.

When asked how I did it, I repeat Jack Lalane’s advice. “If you put something in your mouth and it tastes good, spit it out.” Actually, it’s not that bad.

Recently, I’ve plateaued and became a bit paranoid. I began to think that my scales were part of an industrial complex conspiracy, led by Weight Watchers. How could I be certain that I really knew my weight?

Simple solution. I belong to a gym. They had one of those old fashioned scales with the weights and the arm, where you zip the weight back and forth. You know the type I mean. Doctors’ offices have them. I decided to weigh myself at the gym and then at home with the same outfit to see how close they were.

At the gym I stepped on the scales and it told me I was ten pounds heavier that I weighed at home. Now I was dressed and it was afternoon, so I did expect a bit of a difference, about five pounds to be honest.

As I left the gym, I remarked to the person at the desk how much I hated the scale. She suggested I try the one in the intake room.

This scale was a miracle of modern technology. I had to tell it my height and my age. In return it told me my weight, my percent of body fat, my BMI, and some other things I am not prepared to share. Then I came home, and weighed myself once more, in the same clothes.

The difference in my weight between the two scales was half a pound. The scale at the gym determined that I was heavier than the scale at home.

Now I am sitting and wondering. Which scale is correct?


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A Viral Raccoon Memorial

dead racoon

Torontoians are many things, Canadian, polite, even patient, but they are not known for their love of raccoons. That’s because the pests live in all parts of the city, have adapted to city life, love the contents of recycle bins, defecate all over the place, and sometimes destroy property. One raccoon climbed 2013 meters to poop on top of a crane. Think of them as fury motorcycle gang members on crank.

How many raccoons does the city have? Nobody knows since there has never been a census but an estimate from the 1980’s put the number in the tens of thousands. Ask a home owner and he will tell you there are more raccoons in the city than people. I knew one resident who hoped the advent of coyotes within the city would curb the raccoon population.

However, this story is about one raccoon, which has been named Conrad for no apparent reason. At 9:05 AM, Conrad was reported dead at the corner of Yonge and Church, This is one traffic light north of Bloor and Yonge, and only minutes from the heart of the financial district. It’s right downtown.

Conrad’s body was reported to the City Services which responded that animal services had been contacted and the raccoon would be removed shortly.

At 3:15 PM, Conrad’s body was still on the sidewalk. However, some mourning member of the public had laid a flower on the poor raccoon’s body and left a condolence card. A framed picture of a raccoon stood at the body’s head.

About that time Councilor Norm Kelly became involved as he tweeted “Please have staff pick up this raccoon at 819 Yonge St.”

At 4:50 PM the body remained unclaimed and the memorial had grown.

At 8:37 PM the body remained and the memorial now contained several bunches of flowers as well as notes from people.

Getting into the spirit of the Dead Raccoon movement Norm Kelly tweeted “Residents are being asked to keep their green bins open tonight in honour of #DeadRaccoonTO,” at 9:12 PM.

At 10:23, after the sun had set on poor dead Conrad, his body remained on the sidewalk. Kind people had added several lit candles to his memorial. Perhaps they held a vigil for him. Someone added a donation box. The message on it read, “The proper authorities will only move the little fella when enough funds are raised. Please donate generously…”

Finally, after 11:00 PM, the city workers arrived to remove the dead raccoon body, but left the memorial on the sidewalk.

In Toronto, the city won’t help it citizens with live raccoon issues. The official position is that humans are the problem, not the raccoons. The new mayor, John Tory, thought the solution would be a new green bin that is raccoon proof. I’m certain I heard the same thing about the previous bin. If the new bins work raccoons will be forced to return to digging in compost bins.

Since raccoons carry diseases such as Raccoon Roundworm, Leptospirosis and Rabies, a dead raccoon on the city street isn’t just a laughing matter. It is a health hazard, especially when the cause of death isn’t apparent.

The impromptu memorial and tweets have traveled all over the place. You might have seen the story in the Belfast Telegraph, Minnesota Public Radio, or on Colorado’s 9News. This is the kind of media you can’t buy and certainly the City of Toronto never wanted.

Maybe the next time the public reports a dead animal carcass on the public sidewalk someone will respond in less than twelve hours, but don’t count on it.

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The Rise of the Machines


Scientists, working on AI, are trying to create a computer writer that will be indistinguishable from the human one. The story reminds me of a science fiction tale.

I first became involved with computers in the age of punch cards and large tapes. Big machines in dedicated rooms were served by acolytes in white coats. Today your smart phone has more processing power and more storage than those devices of a generation ago.

The computers have not just become smaller. They have become more human like. Remember the voice of the computer on any Star Trek episode? Strange how those episodes usually involved the destruction of the computer. Contrast that with your GPS or your Siri. In a movie a couple of years ago, a man falls in love with his electronic personal assistant.

Going the other way, voice recognition has gradually moved closer and closer to reality. I’m not using it personally. I go ‘um’ and ‘ah’ too often. However, I noticed that Windows 7 came with this tool and played around with it. Still doesn’t work for me, but for people with disabilities I can see how it would be a boon.

So the computer of today can listen and talk. In the words of the Shania Twain song, “That don’t impress me much.”

I recently discovered a grammar checking tool from, and I was impressed. To really edit a story, I run it through MS Word Grammar and spelling checker, then Grammatik and then I have the computer read it to me. Languagetool catches errors these three checks missed. I’m hoping I can use it to drop a couple of the other review techniques.

Still, grammar is just a set of rules isn’t it? Yes. Go to the library and pick up a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. You might want to work out at the gym for a bit before you try. Big book filled with rules.

Chess is a game of rules. A computer, Deep Blue, won a best of six games competition with the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov almost twenty years ago.

Another computer, Watson, won on Jeopardy almost five years ago.

AP is already using robot writers to pen earnings reports pieces.

I don’t know if the programmers can create a story making machine. I wouldn’t bet against it. And just between us, I have a sneaking suspicion that James Patterson owns the prototype.


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Exoplanets and the Rare Earth Theory


In 1961, Drake used his equation to estimate there could be twenty civilizations in our galaxy. Even today, the equation can produce a result from a low of 2 to a high of 280,000,000, depending what values you use for the variables.

One solution called the “Rare Earth Theory” takes the position that Earth is such a rare combination of conditions that it is unique. If you accept this theory there are no extraterrestrials.

The Rare Earth theory has its own equation. This has more variables than the Drake equation. These additional variables impose new requirements for a planet to develop a technological civilization. This theory argues that in addition to a rocky planet in a goldilocks orbit, the planet also needs the following:

  • It must have the right arrangement of planets with the gas giants on the outside.
  • Plate tectonics is essential for the emergence and sustenance of complex life.
  • A large moon is needed for its tides.
  • Few mass extinction events.

Again, as with the Drake equation the results depend on what variables you consider important, and what values you give them.

In an almost humorous turn of events, one advocate of the Rare Earth Theory points to the lack of extraterrestrials as proof.

The detractors of the Rare Earth theory build their positions in different ways. They feel that the stated preconditions for technological civilizations are too stringent. According to David Darling, the Rare Earth hypothesis is neither hypothesis nor prediction, but merely a description of how life arose on Earth. In his view Ward and Brownlee have done nothing more than select the factors that best suit their case.

At the end of the day, the Rare Earth Theory and the Drake equation before it require too many estimates to be useful. If the Earth is a one in a billion long shot, there are probably forty in this galaxy.

Personally, I remain open to the possibility there is intelligent life out there, and that brings me back to Fermi’s question, “Where is everybody?”

Exoplanets – the Fermi Paradox


In November 2013 astronomers estimated that 22±8% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Assuming 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, that would be 11 billion potentially habitable Earths, rising to 40 billion if red dwarfs are included.

40 billion! Imagine that. That’s just in our galaxy. According to the best estimates of astronomers there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. That could be 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Earth like planets I think. I might have missed an order of magnitude.

Our story begins during the summer of 1951. A nucleus of physicists (most veterans of the Manhattan Project) had reassembled at Los Alamos to create the hydrogen bomb– Bethe, Fermi, Gamow, Garwin, Teller. During lunches at the Fuller Lodge, Fermi loved to pose rhetorical questions, which he then proceeded to answer. They group had been joking about the recent UFO reports, when, out of the blue, Fermi asked “Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?”

Fermi concluded, if interstellar travel is possible, it ought to be positively crowded out there.

However, the question had been asked and continued to beg for an answer. In 1961, Frank Drake, an American astronomer developed the Drake equation. This equation gave an estimate of the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible. The equation itself isn’t particularly useful. Too many unknowns.

Back in 1961, there was no way to estimate the number of planets that could support life. Today from the exoplanet research we know that there could be 40 billion such planets. That still leaves the following variables to consider:

  • fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
  • fi = the fraction of planets with life that develop intelligent life (civilizations)
  • fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a radio communication
  • L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

In 1961, Drake made estimates for all the factors and concluded that there could be twenty such civilizations in our Galaxy. However, it all depends on what you guess. Even today, the equation can produce a result from a low of 2 to a high of 280,000,000. In other words, we don’t know.

Is the Earth such a rare combination of conditions that it is unique in the Universe?

Have other intelligences arisen, but found that space travel was too expensive, and didn’t bother to broadcast by radio?

Have other intelligences arisen, but the lifespan of technological civilizations is too short for communication? This resolution leads to the conclusion that technological civilizations doom themselves.

In other words, we don’t know.


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Exoplanets – the Weird and the Wacky


Exoplanets. Science fiction writers have assumed that other stars had planet from almost the beginning. However, it wasn’t until 1988 that Canadian astronomers Bruce Campbell, G. A. H. Walker, and Stephenson Yang published a paper about their discovery. That was fifteen years after the first Star Wars movie.

Since then, the entire subject of exoplanets has exploded. There are 1931 planets in 1222 planetary systems including 484 multiple planetary systems as of 14 June 2015. And some of those exoplanets are far stranger that science fiction writers imagining.

Consider Kepler-16b. This planet with a mass of about 1/3 of Jupiter orbits a binary star system. From its surface you could see two suns in the sky.

Kepler-11 has six planets orbiting in circles smaller than Venus’ orbit. Furthermore five of those planets are even closer to their parent star than Mercury is to our sun. Crowded. This stellar system could force revisions to the current theories about planet creation.

The term Hot Jupiter refers to Jupiter sized planets so close to their star that their year can be measured in days or hours.

Some of the Jupiter sized planets are significantly larger than you would expect. The largest to date is twenty-nine times larger than Jupiter. Is that a planet or a brown dwarf star?

What about a planet that is entirely made of water? It’s possible.

The impact of these discoveries to modern thought particularly touches on two viewpoints. One is the ‘rare earth theory’, which posits that the planet Earth is a unique combination of conditions. The other is Fermi’s Paradox. In 1950 Fermi commented on the size of the universe and exclaimed “Where are they?” Two different sides to the same question about the rest of the universe.

In November 2013 astronomers estimated that 22±8% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Assuming 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, that would be 11 billion potentially habitable Earths, rising to 40 billion if red dwarfs are included.

40 billion! Imagine that.

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As we Age


In the spring of 1992, I went to a conference where a fellow with nerd glasses explained that ‘This is the last User Interface you will ever have to learn.’ That was Windows 3.1. Then came Windows 95, ME, XP, Vista, 7, 8.1. Every damn one of them has been different. Seven different ones in less than thirteen years.

For me this is a pain. Heck, I remember when programs were keypunched onto cards. For other people this is more than an annoyance. It limits their ability to use and enjoy technology.

Consider the typewriter. The user interface (i.e. the keyboard) has remained the same since 1873. This despite the fact it was originally designed to slow typists so that they didn’t jam the machine.

The telephone has gone through three user interfaces. Originally, the operator simply lifted the receiver and told the operator what number he/she wanted to call. That gave way to the rotary dialer, circa 1920, and then to the push button dialing which was first introduced in 1962.

In 1970 Alvin Toffler’s book ‘Future Shock’ was published. His shortest definition for the term was when a person decided there was too much change in too short a time.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I want a cell phone to work as a phone. A few years ago I upgraded from my flip phone to a smart phone. There are things about the flip phone that I miss, such as:

  • Charge it on Sunday and it lasts all week long.
  • No pocket dialing.
  • A Display I can read in direct sunlight.
  • A phone that fits in a small pocket.

It’s time for a new phone, and I’m thinking about going back a step. The Android OS for cell phones was introduced on Sept, 23, 2008. Version 5.1.1 of the operating system came out last April. Who really wants five revisions in seven years?

For seniors the ‘Future Shock’ is more intense. While seniors in Canada own cellphones (61%) only a few have a smart phone. “Too damn complicated” is what they say if you ask them.

The problem grows much worse when the senior’s faculties are dimmed with age. One company from Australia has completely redesigned the cell phone, with such people in mind. Some of the features include:

  • Personalised menu with pictures of contacts.
  • Long battery life.
  • Light enough to be worn with the provided lanyard so it is not misplaced.
  • A customized back with critical medical information and address details.
  • Built in protection to avoid bill shock if user forgets to hang up.

However, it’s more than just that the device is complicated. The response time for icons on an Apple screen is 0.7 seconds, but the over-65s have a response time of about one second. The computer demands more than the senior can deliver. The nerves in the finger become less sensitive with age, meaning older people may “touch” far more heavily, especially after years of pounding manual keyboards. Finally, tests suggest that if an older person has a slight tremor, it can be registered on a device as a swipe rather than a touch.

Small wonder seniors prefer real buttons to touch screens.

It is estimated that, by 2030, 19% of the US population will be over 65 – roughly the same proportion that currently own iPhones. That’s a pretty big chunk of the market.

Personally, I want the robot companion from the Movie, “Robot and Frank.” Then I’ll have the robot answer my calls on my cellphone.

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Science Fiction and the Car

science ficion cars

I love writing and technology. Naturally, I’ve read a lot of science fiction over the years. Looking back, the technological hits and misses astound me. I’m talking about ‘Near Future Science Fiction.’

For example, Heinlein wrote a number of stories about the world less than a hundred years in the future. In 1940 he wrote a short story called ‘Let there be light’ in which the hero had invented a 99% efficient solar panel. Still waiting on that one, aren’t we?

Transportation seems one area science fiction writers have neglected. You can find lots of stories with spaceships, but very few with commuters. About the only form of transportation that seems to inspire stories is teleportation. I’m thinking about ‘Granny won’t knit’ by Theodore Sturgeon, ‘The Stars My Destination’ by Alfred Bester and the Known Space universe of Larry Niven.

For some reason Science Fiction writers were convinced that personal helicopters would replace cars. I agree that would solve the highway problem, but the potential for fender benders makes me shudder. Others posited antigravity sleds, helicopters without the revolving blades in effect.

However, the automobile has been pretty much ignored. Automated taxis have popped up as a sideline. The one in the original ‘Total Recall’ was amusing. The only story that I can remember that focused on future cars is ‘Code Three’ by Rick Raphael. It revolved around the lives of a couple of highway patrol men in a future where automobiles travelled on roads at speeds up to 400 MPH.

I think that the reason automobiles have been ignored, is that nobody has found anything that could be done to create an interesting story with them. Roads are another matter. Whether we are talking about ‘The Roads must Roll’ by Heinlein, or ‘Roadmarks’ by Roger Zelazny, the appeal of the road is about the journey. Since all stories are journeys of one form or another, this makes sense.

How about a story with an automated taxi cab? I can think of a great opening. The taxi pulls up to the police station, but no one gets out. A cop looks inside the cab and sees a dead man.

If I write it now, would it be science fiction or a modern mystery?

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85 Percent Longer Battery Life


This story astounds me. An eighth grade student was given the U.S. Naval Science award for discovering how to extend the life of hearing aid batteries by 85%. I’m not kidding. How you can do this will shock you.

Ethan Manuell studied hearing aid batteries. He found that waiting five minutes to install them after removing the protective tape, increased the battery life by 85 percent.  How can you get the improvement? After you take the strip off the battery, wait five minutes before you install it in your hearing aid. That’s it!

So for those of you without hearing aids, here are some facts about their batteries. These tiny batteries are made with zinc. To start them you take off a tape or strip that keeps the air out. The battery then works on the oxidation of the zinc when it is exposed to the oxygen in the air.

Just tearing the strip off starts the battery, but it takes some time to get up to it full voltage. That may be behind the benefit of waiting five minutes before installing it.

The batteries come in several sizes, the smallest is size 10 and the largest is size 675. The smaller the hearing aid, the smaller the battery. Now for the shocker. Here are the life expectancies for these batteries.

Size 10: 3-5 days
Size 312: 7-10 days
Size 13: 10-14 days
Size 675: 14-17 days.

That translates into a cost as follows:

Size 10: an average of $150/year
Size 312: an average of $80/year
Size 13: an average of $50/year
Size 675: an average of $30/year.

Manuell wears a hearing aid himself, so he knew these facts. He knew that any increase in battery life could shave this cost down considerably.

Officially known as ‘The Effect of Wait Time on the Lifespan of Hearing Aid Batteries,’ the study was reviewed by the Olmsted Medical Center. Spread the word. This will help the roughly seven million people who wear hearing aids in the United States.

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Hugo Wars


In a world of crowd funding, flash mobs, and internet anarchy, it feels that the current Hugo awards controversy was inevitable.

What are the Hugo Awards? Since 1953, these awards for the best Science Fiction and Fantasy published in English have been given out at the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). Hugo Award nominees and winners are chosen by supporting or attending members of Worldcon. The rules about nomination are critical to the rest of this story.

To become a supporting member requires buying a membership for forty dollars. A group known as the Sad Puppies took advantage of rules, and the low participation of readers to mount a campaign that nominated their slate of stories for the 2015.

Who are the Sad Puppies? This is a group organized by sci-fi writers Larry Correia and Brad R. Torgersen. Is it really a group? From what I’ve read this year was not the first time these two have tried to influence the nomination process. In 2014, they had some success with about seventy supporters.

What happened this year? On February 1st, 2015, Torgersen published the Sad Puppies 3 slate for this year’s Hugo Awards. On February 5th, the conservative news site Breitbart published an article about Sad Puppies. On April 4th, the Hugo Awards announced the 2015 finalists, featuring many authors and works listed on the Sad Puppies slate.

Now we get to the name calling. The Sad puppies say they wanted to draw attention to authors and creators who were suffering from an undeserved lack of attention due to the political climate in sci-fi. That’s right. This is about politics in Science Fiction.

Not the Science Fiction has been immune to politics. H.G. Wells’ novel ‘The Time Machine’ has a distinctly socialist message. Jack London’s novel ‘The Iron Heel’ chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. Who could forget ‘Animal Farm’ or ‘1984’?

Politics, race, roles of women have all been addressed in Science Fiction for decades. Not just in books either. Rod Serling often used aliens to raise an issues related to race in ‘The Twilight Zone’, and the first interracial kiss on American television was shown on an episode of Star Trek.

I remember how the war in Vietnam divided the SF community as it did the world: Heinlein supporting, and Asimov protesting. Both groups ran advertisements in the SF magazines of the time.

Personally, I don’t care if the author is black or white, man or woman. I’m interested in the fun the story gives me. I read Samuel R. Delany long before I knew he was black. And Leigh Brackett long before I knew she was a woman.

However, the issues of race and gender in Science Fiction have come out of the fiction and into our reality. As for the Hugos, it seems that the awards have entered the world of party politics, with the battle lines drawn between the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives.

I wonder what next year will bring. Attack ads on the internet? Conventions? Will the community divide along political lines? Maybe the Hugos will implode, leaving the Nebula awards as the only ones for SF writers.

Welcome to ‘The Brave New World’.

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Cars in Havana


Havana makes watching cars to by an enjoyable diversion again. Yes, there are a host of American cars from the 50’s on the road. You can see a 57 Cadillac convertible. I admit to a bit of nostalgia as a Studebaker drove by.

However, despite what you might have read, these cars are not the only ones on the road. There are only 60,000 of the máquina still on the road in a country eleven million people. The Ladas continue to reign as the most populace vehicle on the island.

What else can you see? I saw Hundai and Kia, Toyota and Mistubishi. Peugots are popular. Then there are Fiat, Citroen, Volkswagon, Renault and others. Frankly, I didn’t recognize some of the manufacturers they have there.

One that I had to track down when I returned is the Geely, which is a Chinese automotive manufacturing company headquartered in Hangzhou, China. The Emgrand is another car from the same maker.

Cuba doesn’t manufacture its own cars. However, I did see a number of Geely with that maker’s emblem replaced with one that was a stylized Cuban Flag. I don’t know. Nationalism? Government contract?

I did ask about the old American cars. I wanted to know what they did for gasoline, since the vehicles of the 50’s used leaded gas. Really. At one point they put lead in gasoline as an anti-knock additive.

I was told that many of the old American cars have had their engines replaced with diesels. The price of diesel is much lower than gasoline, and the new diesel engines are much more efficient. Those old cars used to get ten miles to the gallon, or less.

The máquina will continue on the roads of Cuba, especially Havana for a few reasons. To begin with any automobile is expensive in Cuba, in part because of the import duty on new cars which runs close to 100%. A car costs almost as much as a house. Therefore having a working car is a perfect example of conspicuous consumption. On Sundays, taking a spin in the family car is a favorite afternoon recreation. The roads are just as crowded on Sunday as they are during the week in Havana.

Finally, those brightly painted and polished old American cars are used for taxis and tours. The Cubans know that tourists are fascinated by the old cars, and the Cubans know how to turn a pretty car into a tourist trimmer.

Still Cubans hope that the American embargo is rescinded. They would like to be able to order parts for these old cars from Miami. Today, they need a relative, who will carry the part. Even direct flights would be an improvement.

So why do travel writers always remark on the máquina? Well like all writers, they try to identify the unique element of the environment to catch the readers’ attention. Nowhere else in the world do people drive American cars made in the 1950’s.



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Hope for Lost Works of Greek and Roman Times

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, The scrolls of Herculaneum were blasted by volcanic gas hotter than 300C. The scrolls still exist today, but are essentially ashes that haven’t fallen apart. How Many? The best count that I have found is 1,785. However, there are still 2,800 m² left to be excavated, so there could be more scrolls, many more.

Since their discovery this scrolls have been a source temptation and a source of anguish. What do they contain? We don’t know. To unroll the scroll is to destroy it. The riches trapped in the scrolls have been locked in their condition until most recently.

Using a 3D X-ray imaging technique Scientists this they may be able to read the scrolls without rolling them. Dr Vito Mocella from the National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, Italy, has identified a handful of Greek letters within a rolled-up scroll for the very first time.

The technique doesn’t actually read the scroll it reads the difference in thickness caused by the dried ink on the papyrus. It reads the thickness of the ink, not the ink itself. It’s difficult because the Papyrus isn’t perfectly flat. Imperfections can disguise vertical and horizontal strokes, so letter with curved lines are easiest to detect.

With over seventeen hundred scrolls it is possible that some lost works of literature may be recovered. There is some speculation that the villa that housed the scrolls was owned by Father-in-law of Julies Caesar. It is believed that the library might have been collected and selected by Piso’s family friend and client, the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara.

I can speculate. Actually, anyone can. If this was Julius Caesar’s Father-in-law, we can hope to find the following works by the famous Roman:

  • Anticatonis Libri II (only fragments survived)
  • Carmina et prolusiones (only fragments survived)
  • De analogia libri II ad M. Tullium Ciceronem
  • De astris liber
  • Dicta collectanea (“collected sayings”, also known by the Greek title άποφθέγματα)
  • Letters (only fragments survived)
  • Iter (only one fragment survived)
  • Laudes Herculis
  • Libri auspiciorum (“books of auspices”, also known as Auguralia)
  • Oedipus
  • possibly some early love poems

By Cicero:

  • Four tragedies in the Greek style: Tiroas, Erigones, Electra, and one other.
  • Hortensius, a dialogue also known as “On Philosophy”.
  • Consolatio, written to soothe his own sadness at the death of his daughter Tullia Ciceronis

By Homer:

  • The Odyssey mentions the blind singer Demodocus performing a poem recounting the otherwise unknown “Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles”, which might have been an actual work that did not survive.
  • The sequel to the Odyssey?

By Livy:

  • 107 of the 142 books of Ab Urbe Condita, a history of Rome

By Ovid:

  • Medea, of which only two fragments survive.

Then there are the lost works that might, just might show up, but really don’t fit with a Roman library. The lost books of the bible for example, or the lost epistle of Paul.

We just don’t know what the library contains. However, today we have more hope of its recovery than before.

Yes, works can be lost and recovered. The most famous case is the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC).


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What Star Trek TNG got right and got wrong – 3

If mankind has a hobby (or an obsession) it is the war. Thomas Hobbes called the natural state of man as ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’ (war of all against all). Yet in TNG, the world is at peace. Perhaps that’s why the weapons on TNG are so primitive.

What do I mean? Watch any TNG episode. In most you’ll see the phasers (set to stun) drawn. Then there are a couple of minutes of shooting back and forth with visible beams fired by hand or rifle phaser that miss most of the time.

Today, prison guards in American prison have rifles with laser pointers that show where the shot will go. It cools the jail yard rioter when he sees the little red dot on his chest. Police, when they storm a position, use a stun grenade, also known at a flashbang or flash grenade. These disorient, stun, deafen, and blind the opponent. By the way they were first developed by the British Army’s SAS in the 1960’s.

The closest we have to a phaser is the Taser, which at close ranges does the job, but Riot police also have rubber bullets for standard pistols and rifles, plastic batons (plastic bullets) from specialized guns, and the Bean Bag round from shotguns to strike at a great distance without killing.

For more deadly results, consider the fire and forget facilities in development. US military research agency DARPA says it is homing in on its long-term ambition of producing self-guided bullets, after staging a test in which a sniper was able to shoot at a target at a radically wrong angle, and yet still hit it perfectly. The bullet has fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, and comes in a .50 round. That means a kill from a mile away, or farther.

Want something as an American civilian. TrackingPoint, an Austin-based company, builds smart-rifles with a computer to increase accuracy out to 1,000 yards. After the shooter tags the target the gun adjusts the scope’s crosshairs for a perfect shot when the trigger is pulled. Those Star Trek Phaser rifles haven’t changed since 1966, still with iron sites if any.

Want more fire power. As part of the military, you could add an under the barrel grenade launcher to your rifle today. Then go with a grenade that explodes after it has penetrated the wall and infra-red detection to spot the other guys through the wall.

Did I mention body armor?

Today’s Special Forces have the equipment and training to turn a TNG fire fight into ten seconds of slaughter.

In part, you have to remember that Rodenberry’s view of the 24th century for TNG. It was a utopia where the world is at peace. People are able to receive all of their basic needs. Money no longer exists. Small wonder small arms didn’t advance between the first generation and the second generation almost a century later. We’re not even with hailing distance of the part of the imagined future.

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What Star Trek TNG got right and wrong – 2

We have created some of the Star Trek technology in the last twenty-five-years. In other places we still have to a ways to go. Now TNG showed us the dream. What has been done to make the vision real?


What’s happened with the hypospray? That was a medical device to inject liquids into the body. It used compressed air to deposit the injectant into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery, without the use of a needle. It turns out that this wasn’t 24th century technology, even when TNG was in production. High pressure air injectors have been used by the military as a common initial entry vaccination method since at least the mid 1980’s. There are several models on the market today, principally used by the U.S. military. These devices used compressed air or co2 gas.


The latest entrant into the field is a device from MIT. This device uses a Lorentz-force actuator – a small, powerful magnet surrounded by a coil of wire that’s attached to a piston inside the drug ampule. No compressed air required.


However these devices do not inject into an artery and are not as safe as first thought. The jet injector breaks the barrier of the skin, so potential biological material can be transferred from one user to the next. One study tested the fluid remaining in the injector for blood after an injection, and found enough to pass on a virus. Blowback from the injection is still a problem. The World Health Organization no longer recommends jet injectors for vaccination due to risks of disease transmission. That’s why you haven’t seen a hypospray in your doctor’s office.


What happened to the medical tricorder? There’s actually an X-prize for creating one. The ten finalists have been chosen, and they must demonstrate their devices on humans in 2015 with three winners to be announced in 2016. Top prize is seven million dollars (U.S.). Part of the problem is definition. The medical tricorder of TNG acted could X-ray bones, scan organs like an MRI, test blood and analyze pathogens. That’s a lot in a hand-held device.


Specialized devices such as blood sugar monitors have made great strides in the last twenty years. Ask any diabetic. Another specialized testing device uses an app, a smart phone and the smartphone’s camera to deliver screening without the need for laboratories and highly trained staff.


For much of the world even this technology is out of reach. Cost is a consideration. Recently, in an attempt to do a mass test for cervical cancer, India resorted to less expensive solution. The test involves swabbing the cervix with vinegar, which turns the precancerous tumors white. The results can be seen in minutes. Using this test and some liquid nitrogen reduced cancer deaths by 31 percent in the testing area. This could save over 72,000 lives if used worldwide. It’s not sexy technology but it gets the job done.











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What Star Trek TNG Got Right and Wrong

Star Trek, the Next Generation, ran from 1987 to 1994.  That’s about over twenty-five-years ago. A generation. It’s set in 2364AD, or almost three hundred years from the broadcast of the first Star Trek series. I watched the first episode and cringed. It was so bad it set a new low for SF on television. Still, I did watch more. Why? A few years earlier I worked as an extra on a show with Gates McFadden who played Dr. Beverly Crusher on TNG.

I didn’t know Gates. I was on the same show and saw her on the set. If you were to ask me about her, all I could tell you is that she knew her lines, and hit her mark. I guess that is quite a lot when you come to think of it,

I have no need to tell you that the show went on to become a great success, spawned spin off shows and movies as well. I thought it would be interesting to look at technology and see the hits and misses as time moves forward.

In communication, Star Trek was ahead of its time, but we’ve caught up quickly. In the first show they had flip phones, and in the second they had the comm badges. Well flip phones have come and gone. I sort of miss them.  They were small, simple, and could hold a charge for a week, unlike my newer smart phone.

Wearable technology is making the comm badge a possibility. However, it will probably look more like Dick Tracy’s radio. The practical problem with the comm badge is that everyone in the room hears both sides of the conversation. No privacy. With current phones, I have had to remind commuters that their ‘cone of silence’ isn’t working and the entire train car can hear some of the conversation. (Remember this when you call your drug dealer.)

And remember how Captain Picard would go to his ready room to receive a video call from Star Fleet? Today you can do the same with your computer, its camera and Skype. Have you noticed that every laptop has a video camera built into it?

Remember, those pads that people would pass to the captain and he would read, while rubbing his chin? The replacement for paper? Then he would take out the attached stylus and make some marks. Well between ereaders and tablets, we can see the technology here today. However, our tablets are touch-screen, in color and have audio. We don’t need the stupid stylus anymore. Still, it will take a while before paper disappears.

How did TNG do with computers? Frankly I’m surprised they still had computers in the 24th century. Voice recognition and control software comes with your Window 8 machine today. Text to speech has been around even longer.  However, the computer voices on TNG sound much more wooden that the computer text of today. Even Lieutenant Reginald Barclay didn’t obsess over the computer’s voice. Contrast that to the character in the 2013 movie ‘Her’ who fell in love with the voice on his telephone.

Remember the iso linear optical chips on TNG. Current technology is getting there. You can go into any computer store in the world to pick up a MicroSD chip for 64Gig. That could hold about a thousand movies.  Solid State ram drives are available for your laptop. (I put one into a server five years ago.) Optical chips are a current topic in U.S. defense contracts. This would be one to visit in another ten years. That would improve capacity and speed. (Why do we need a one Terabyte microSD device?)

I always wanted a Universal Translator. I’m terrible at languages. Today you can buy a device, or down an app to your smart phone that will translate from one language to another. Furthermore, you can speak into it in one language and it will repeat it back in the other language, out loud.  I don’t think they have one that a third party can speak into in a foreign language and it will echo back in your language yet. Why? I once remember listening to a Pole and a Chinese person argue about the news in English. Accents are still a stumbling block for voice-to-text recorders. Who knows what can be done in twenty years on this?

Enter the Dashcam

This has been a horrible year for the Toronto Transit bus drivers. First one was fired for running a red light and nearly hitting a pedestrian after dash-camera footage was sent in. A second case of a bus running a red light has been recorded.

Then, just before Christmas, a bus ran over a fourteen-year-old girl while making a turn and failed to remain at the scene of the accident. Tragic. (No charges have yet been laid in this incident.)

Finally a TTC bus ran into a streetcar. The driver has been charged. Hitting a streetcar? It makes you wonder why the startling red object the size of, well, of a streetcar, didn’t catch his/her attention.

Now 99% of the bus drivers are responsible, professional and competent drivers. However the TTC has 2031 buses, so it has more than four thousand drivers. My luck would be that I’ll run into one of the bad ones.

So I got a dashcam. It is a little device that mounts on the windshield and it records everything in front of you as you drive. The guy running the yellow right coming through the intersection. The truck that changed lanes without signaling. Mine also records interior sound, my GPS location, my speed. (The last is a bit scary.) In the event of an accident the camera senses the collision and marks the part of its recording before during and after the incident as protected.

A common insurance scam in the Toronto area is to create a fender bender with an innocent car, and then make insurance claims. A dashcam would record that the other car backed into you, or cut you off.

I now have a little more peace of mind when driving. I’ll have proof of my innocence, with complete video and audio. However, one question remains in my mind. I wonder why the auto insurance companies don’t offer a discount for a car with a dashcam.



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32 Gig?

Christmas presents have come and I have some new toys. Here is a general rule for buying presents. Men and women are fundamentally different, so they react differently to presents. In general, men like shiny things with metal and lots of parts, or electronics of any sort.

I received two electronic toys this season, both of which accepted a micro SD card. I visited a computer two and picked up two of them for about twenty dollars each.

Now a Micro SD card is just that a piece of memory, in plastic that is smaller than the nail on your pinky finger. As I installed it, I realized. That’s 32 Gig! My first computer had forty-eight K of memory. This chip has about a million times that.

That Micro SD could hold more than 60 full length movies? What would that be in books? The Paperwhite Kindle has 2gb and can hold approximately 1100 ebooks. That little chip can hold sixteen times that much. Not the entire library of congress, but enough to supply reading for about fifty years.

Moore’s law states that computer chips double in capacity roughly every two years. So expect to see on terabyte Micro SD cards in about ten years.

What will we do with all of this capacity? I mean besides save movies and MP3’s. (Will we bother with MP3 compression?)


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The Start of a Revolution that is still going


The revolution I’m talking about is the Transistor Revolution. Today computers, phones, and cameras rely on these transistors, and the chips that hold billions of them. These chips have wormed their way into everything from cars to washing machines. Yet the creation of the transistor is not yet a century old.
From November 17, 1947 to December 23, 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain at AT&T’s Bell Labs in the United States, performed experiments and observed that when two gold point contacts were applied to a crystal of germanium, a signal was produced with the output power greater than the input. This was the first point-contact transistor. They won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956 for this invention.
John Bardeen (May 23, 1908 – January 30, 1991) was the only person to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice. He won it again for a fundamental theory of conventional superconductivity known as the BCS theory. He must have been an exceptional man.  After he left Bell Labs for the University of Illinois, his first Ph.D. student was Nick Holonyak (1954), the inventor of the first LED in 1962.
He was an active professor at Illinois from 1951 to 1975 and then became Professor Emeritus. Bardeen continued his research throughout the 1980s, and published articles less than a year before he died at the age of eighty-three.
If you had him for a neighbor, you might not have realized what he did for a living. Bardeen was unassuming. Many of his neighbors of forty years didn’t know about his accomplishments.
The transistor started to replace vacuum tubes in the late 50’s and the early 60’s.  One of the first popular devices was the portable radio. Think about it. This was the first portable device for music listening. It paved the way for the Walkman of the eighties and today’s MP3 players.
The revolution continues.  Google glasses, I-watches, and in 2015 perhaps virtual reality headsets.


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Television is destroying itself

I know. People have been saying this since the boob tube first lit up in black and white. And despite all the efforts of the channels, the advertisers, and the producers, television has grown from the three big channels into an array of hundreds.

However, this time, I think they may succeed. Have patience and listen to my thinking.

The reason that television didn’t destroy itself in the 50’s through 90’s was simple. Free entertainment, no matter how bad, will continue to have an audience. Television killed the radio drama, its major competition. That left only reading as an alternative, and frankly the changes in the publishing industry show that industry is even more out of touch with the consumer.

Today that has changed. With the Internet, Netflix, and YouTube, the consumer (viewer) can watch what he wants, when he wants by clicking a few buttons on the computer. Or pad, or phone. Technological advances have changed the way video consumption occurs.

Don’t believe me? Do you believe Nielsen, the television rating people? They have been in the business since 1950. They say “In percentage terms, traditional TV viewing among 18-24-year-olds in Q2 2014 was down by 11.7% year-over-year. Between Q2 2011 and Q2 2014, weekly viewing fell by 21.7%, a sizable figure.”

If Americans bought 21.7% fewer cars than three years ago, it would be plastered on every newspaper in the country.

Now why the change? We there are more alternatives. Video games have grown into a major player. (Sorry about that pun.) They took in about $9.5 billion in the US in 2007, 11.7 billion in 2008, and 25.1 billion in. (I don’t have figures for the last four years, but the trend continues.) Then there’s view on demand from the internet of movies and television shows.

However, my gripe is with the television industry. If they want people to watch movies and shows on the boob tube, you would think they would make it easy for us to find what we wanted. I think they are doing the opposite.

Two years ago, I had a web page I could turn to. It showed what was on television. All the stations by station number for the cable on one scroll down list. If I clicked on a particular station, I could see a listing of the scheduled shows for the next two weeks. Simple, easy to use, and useful.

It’s gone. The web page is still there, but they changed it so I can only see 13 channels at a time, I can’t search for shows, and it doesn’t list the channels by the station number on my cable. I am now forced to use a paper TV listing that comes with the newspaper to find out what’s on.

I’m not the only one frustrated. In a recent humorous sketch I saw, the people were playing a version of ‘Battleships’, searching for the telecast of a hockey game on the myriad of ‘sports’ channels.

If I can’t find the show on broadcast television, I will search for direct viewing on the internet. Television is losing me, and I’m the demographic who still watches it, for the present.

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Measures for Historical Fiction

After writing about the creation of the Metric System, I began to wonder what came before it? In the English speaking world this is simple to see. Many of the measurements continue to be used in certain areas. However, I imagine that more modern readers wouldn’t know what they mean. The old measurements remain embedded in the language through novels, songs, and even proverbs.

So here are some of those measurements, and what they mean, and where they came from.

The Foot

The foot is a basic measurement of length, and the basis of all distance measurement for the United States today, and for most of the British Empire over centuries. This is a gift from the Roman past. The Roman’s had a measurement called a pes or foot. The general modern consensus places the Roman foot at 296 mm.

The foot is about the size an adult male foot, or an average adult male’s foot is about a foot long.

The Inch

The Romans divided their foot in two ways, digitus (finger) or uncia (thumb). The thumb became the English inch, and twelve inches to a foot came from the Romans as well. The earliest reference to this measurement comes from the seventh century where the laws defined the fine for various wounds.

An inch is 25.4 mm.

Other Roman measurements

The Romans has other measurements that have come down to us. These include palmus(hand) cubitus(cubit) passus(pace) stadium (furlong) mille passuum(mile) and Gallic leuga(league). While some of these measurements are not in common usage in even the United States, they remain in our language.

Hand and Furlong

The Hand measurement remains in some use as the unit to measure the height of a horse. You might run into it in American Westerns. However, you might also run into this measurement in historical novels about Ancient Egypt where it originated, along with the cubit.

A hand is 94mm. A cubit is 525mm.

The furlong also ties into horses, and other animals. Horse race distances were measured in Furlongs, and related to the plowing and land area in medieval times. Ontario Canada had major roads laid out every ten furlongs, so two highway exits are often every two kilometers. The furlong is about the same length as the Roman stadium, which they imported from the Greeks. That’s why you’ll find it in the King James Bible.

A furlong is about 201 meters.

Rods and Chains

Now here are two measurements that are obsolete, fun, and almost always misused in historical novels, the Rod and the Chain. Both are tools for surveying land. Why? You could have an actual Rod (or perch or pole) and an actual chain. Furthermore, you can’t stretch a rod or a chain. (Although I’m willing to bet that some scoundrels were not above shortening a chain or a pole if they could get away with it.)

The standardization of the length of a Rod and a Chain in England came in the sixteenth century. Those would have been the tools George Washington used when he acted as a surveyor.

A Rod is 5.03 meters.

A Chain is 20.11 meters

The Mile

So the mile started as a roman measurement of a thousand paces or five thousand feet. Don’t ask me why the English made it longer. The romans marked their roads with milestones and those stones remain to this day from England to the Middle-East. While that is the parent measurement, it has a raft of children.

The land mile is 1,609.34 meters

There is another mile in common usage, the nautical mile. This is approximately one minute of an arc along any meridian. The nautical mile remains in use by sea and air navigators worldwide because of its convenience when working with charts. A distance measured with a chart divider can be roughly converted to nautical miles using the chart’s latitude scale.

Now the nautical mile is a bit of a slippery distance. It varies between 1,842.9 meters at the equator to about 1,861.7 at the pole. (The earth is not perfectly round.) In 1929 it was set to exactly 1852 meters.

In the middle ages the Muslim geographers created a measurement based on the arc of the meridian as well. Caliph Al-Ma’mun commissioned astronomers and geographers to determine the length of this arc, and by calculation, the circumference of the Earth in 830 AD.

In the middle ages the Danish, German, Swedish, and Portuguese had variations on this theme that ranged from two to twelve kilometers.

The league

To the Romans a league was the distance a soldier could march in an hour, about three Roman miles. In English it is three land miles, but at sea it is three nautical miles. The measurement is no longer an official unit in any country. However it remains in our language because of poetry and fiction. Here are two that come to mind:

  • The charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • Twenty thousand Leagues under the sea by Jules Verne.
  • The seven league boots of fairy tales



Keep five yards from a carriage, ten yards from a horse, and a hundred yards from an elephant; but the distance one should keep from a wicked man cannot be measured.

Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Over a distance of a thousand miles only humanity works, not power.

A miss is as good as a mile.

After dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile.

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Where did Metric come from?

To most of the world today, the temperature is in Celsius, the road is in kilometers, and the butter is by the gram. The United States uses Fahrenheit, miles, and pounds.

However, in much of the British commonwealth, confusion rules in many places. You can still get a pint in a pub, before walking a mile or two to the station.

To create the Metric System, we needed a couple of things. One was the Arabic numerals, which were invented in India, and came back to Europe with the crusaders, along with the Gothic arch and other strange and interesting things. Why? The Metric System was based on the idea of tens, or tenths. Before the Arabic numerals, Europe used Roman numerals. Quick, how much is “IV” time “L”? Never mind. “IV” is four, and “L” is 50, so the answer is 200 or “CC”.

John Wilkins in 1668 was one of the first to propose a decimal system of measurement for length and mass in a paper to the Royal Society of London. Imagine an alternative history where this was accepted.

After the French Revolution, the new government created a department of Weights and Measures. This department recommended the country create a new system to replace the multitude of different systems throughout the country.

As France conquered Europe, it introduced its new standards for measuring distance and weight. After its defeat, some places returned to the old ways. However the simplicity of the Metric System gradually won acceptance for parts of Europe, starting with the Netherlands. By 1875, two thirds of Europeans and half of the World’s population had started to use the new system. Initially, England and Russia resisted. Russia switched to it in 1924. England adopted it in 1965.

Interesting fact. The gram was originally 1/100th of a grave. However, a grave was also a synonym for a count. That was too aristocratic a term for the egalitarian revolution. So the term was replaced with the kilogram.

Strange as it may sound, there is a strong American connection to the creation of the Metric System. In 1782, Jefferson argued for a decimal currency. He succeeded and the first American currency had one hundred cents to the dollar. The British retained their pounds, shillings and pence system until 1971. Jefferson also tried to create a decimal system of measurement, suggesting 10 inches to a foot. However, in this case, his efforts failed.

The American relationship with Metric continued. The Metric law of 1866 made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities. Then in 1927, several million people sent over 100,000 petitions backed by the Metric Association and The General Federation of Women’s Clubs urging Congress to adopt the metric system. Finally, in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Metric Conversion Act which declared the Metric system “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.” A complete failure.

Personally, I like the old system. I like a world measured in inches, hands, spans, feet, yards, rods, furlongs, miles and leagues. I like a world where weight is measured in teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, pounds, stones, and tons. Still, when I want to do arithmetic, I revert to Arabic rather than Roman numerals. When converting cups into teaspoons I do the same thing, switch to metric to find the answer.

The point for any writer of historical fiction is simple. Remember metric measurement didn’t exist before 1790.



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The Last Footsteps on the Moon

On December 14, at 5:55 P.M. EST 1972, the ascent stage of the Lunar Module for the Apollo 17 mission lifted off. Aboard it, were the last two men to walk on the moon, Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan and Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt. Neither man would ever return to space.

Schmitt was the first scientist to fly into space, a geologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. The decision to send a scientist instead of a pilot met with some resistance.  Cernan was publicly critical of it. However, in Cernan’s words, Schmitt proved a capable LM pilot.

Cernan had served as a fighter pilot, pilot of the Gemini 9A and lunar module pilot of Apollo 10.  Before re-entering the LM for the final time, Gene Cernan said, “I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come.”

The men knew that this was a last mission in the Apollo program, and the last planned flight to the moon.  They did what they could with this last mission. They collected 244 pounds (111 kilograms) of lunar material. This included the strange orange soil that proved to be microscopic glass beads from volcanic activity.

Strange and interesting lunar facts
Cernan’s distinction as the last person to walk on the moon means that Purdue University holds the distinction of being the alma mater of both the first person to walk on the Moon and the last.

The Apollo 17 Lunar Rover had the last fender bender on the moon. Cernan caught his hammer under the right-rear fender, breaking it off. They repaired the fender with duct tape, but not before getting covered with moon dust.

Moon dust smells like spent gunpowder.

The Apollo 17 plaque has the inscription: “Here Man completed his first explorations of the Moon. December 1972 AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.”

President Richard M. Nixon’s signature is on this plaque.

While the American flag from the first landing was knocked over, when they took off, the one from the Apollo 17 mission remains standing as of April 21, 2012. There is a picture showing its shadow on the surface.

After forty years, the color has been bleached out of the flag by unfiltered sunlight.

Apollo 17 was the first night launch of a U.S. human spaceflight. It was also final crewed launch of a Saturn V rocket.

Man left the moon for the last time:
·    Before Microsoft was founded,
·    Before the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam,
·    Before Elvis Presley died,
·    Before Roe versus Wade legalized abortions in the U.S.,
·    Before Star Wars,
·    Before microwave ovens, cell phones, internet,
·    Before personal computers and YouTube.
On YouTube, you can watch the following:

·    Liftoff  –
·    Lunar Landing –
·    Lunar launch –
·    Splash down –

Apollo 17 spacecraft landed safely in the Pacific Ocean  at 2:25 P.M., 6.4 kilometers (4.0 mi) from the recovery ship, the USS Ticonderoga. Cernan, Evans and Schmitt were then retrieved by a recovery helicopter and were safely aboard the recovery ship 52 minutes after landing.


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The Belly Button Clicker

Recently a friend has been working to create a small wearable device that would signal a computer a mouse click when the user clenches his muscles in his stomach. Naturally, I thought of the belly button button or the belly button clicker. Now it actually has nothing to do with the belly button, but it sounds funny.

Although I’m laughing, this is a serious field of endeavor. Person/machine interfaces have been a triumph and disaster over the last couple of centuries. Some of the compromises remain with us today.

For example, the QWERTY keyboard that I am typing on was created for the original typewriter. The placement of the keys was intentional, a solution to a consistent problem. Typists would exceed the machine’s ability with their typing, so the keyboard was designed to slow the humans down to the machine’s speed. More than a century later we still use it. Despite efforts to introduce a better keyboard layout, it remains the standard.

Keyboards have a host of similar issues. In one version of its personal computer, IBM changed the size and shape of the carriage return button. (That’s now called the ‘Enter’ button.) IBM should have known better, having practically created a monopoly in typewriters with its ‘Selectric Typewriter’. The revision met ridicule, and one entrepreneur sold a joke extension to the right pinky finger to handle the new keyboard.

If you want to see a different keyboard for text entry, look at the one used by court reporters, the Stenotype. With one, a reporter can type two hundred or more words a minute. Compare that to the 30 words a minutes you needed in Keyboarding 101.

Not all mistakes have had such humorous consequences. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) lost a fortune investing in a mechanical typesetter. His losses force him to go on a world tour, packing audiences to hear his humor. Perhaps that is how the stand-up comic began.

I won’t discuss the numeric keypad that can be seen on everything from computer keyboards to adding machines, to electric calculators, to telephones, to security access devices. With only ten digits and a couple of other things, you’d expect they could be consistent. Really? Pull out your phone and compare it to your keyboard numeric pad.

The telephone keypad originated with the “Touch Tone” phones introduced in the 1960’s. The Computer number pad followed the design of the cash register and adding machines. Hence the double zero key. The result is that we have two numeric pads in our lives one with the ‘7’ in the top left corner, and another with a ‘1’ there. No one expected calculators and telephones to merge. Silly humans.

Today, we interact with computers in one form or another throughout most of our day. The types of interfaces have expanded. Touchscreen, voice recognition, thumb pads, stylus, and of course the mouse with its click and double click.

I remember years ago experimenting with dual mouses on a computer. I controlled one by hand. I control the other, a track ball, with my foot. The belly button clicker would have been perfect. I could have controlled the mouse while keeping my hands on the keyboard. Ask any old time users and they will explain that WordPerfect 5.2 for DOS was perfect because you could accomplish anything you wanted with a combination of the control, Alt and Function keys.

My friend’s efforts fit in with so many new uses for computers. A company is touting a putter which has sensors. It can tell the golfer how smooth his stroke is, the angle of the head to the motion and a host of other things. In effect, the putter is an input device to the computer.

How will we interact with computers and the world in twenty years? Will we have mind reading machines? Digital interfaces wired into our bodies? Computer screens on contact lenses in our eyes?

I suspect that anything I suggest that is too outlandish, will be to conservatives.

However, I’ll bet that one hundred years from now there will still be QUERTY keyboards and keyboarding classes in school.

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The Battle of Kitty Hawk, NC

In Dare County, one part of the Carolina Outer Banks, lies a village with population of 3,272 people in 2010. Yet this speck of land in all the United States may prove to be at the central focus for the greatest issue of the 21st century.

The Outer Banks are a series of islands, sandbanks that stick above the waves, that stretch along the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. Hurricanes reshape them on a regular basis creating new inlets and closing old ones. However man has settled there, and he wants things more permanent, and North Carolina’s highway 12 is one of his efforts to make things permanent.

What is the name of this village and why is it important? The place is named Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright, walked into town and sent a telegram to their father to tell him of their first controlled airplane flight. Those flights actually took place four miles away, at the Kill Devil Hills. If you journey from Kitty Hawk, south on US 158, you eventually end up on NC-12.

In American History, Kitty Hawk ranks with Lexington, Manassas, and Gettysburg. These were all places where Americans hammered out their history. Its place in history has been cemented as the name has been used  on an aircraft carrier, and the Apollo fourteen command module.

Why could Kitty Hawk become central in a new issue? The town lies at an elevation of seven feet above sea level. Since the ocean is rising faster here than anywhere else on the Eastern seaboard, you have a flash point for the controversy over Global Warming.

This is where the story takes a decidedly political turn, and involves the American political system. In 2011 the state authorities accepted a prediction that sea levels would rise by 39 inches in the next 85 years. That spells death for the highway and the communities along the Outer Banks.

In 2012, the Republicans took control of the state. They selected a new forecast, one that only looks 30 years ahead, and predicts a rise of eight inches in ocean level.

The story fascinates me because it combines history, science and politics. If you look at a map, you can see that Kitty Hawk cannot be defended from the rising ocean by dykes. The ocean surrounds it. What will happen?

I don’t know. I have my own prediction, as do both the Democrats and the Republicans. Perhaps in 30 years the issue will be settled, one way or the other.

Just keep Kitty Hawk in mind. There are barrier islands from south of Virginia Beach to Key West and towns like Kitty Hawk along the way. What happens there, affects citizens from North Carolina to Florida.

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The future and the self driving car

Recently Google has been testing a self-driving car. The planned production model will not have a steering wheel. Everyone that I know wants one, including myself. Why? Imagine the convenience. I commute and with such a car, I would no longer have to worry about the traffic. I could sit back and read a book, sip my coffee, get a head start of the workday. I want one with a coffee maker and a microwave.

Do you remember a book/movie called ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’? In the book, the lawyer didn’t have an office. He did all his work in his car, chauffeured from appointment to appointment. With the introduction of the self-driving car, you can expect more such professionals in real life.

That got me to thinking about the implications of such a vehicle. ‘What if’ thinking if you prefer to call it that.

What would car insurance for such a vehicle be? On one hand, the vehicle would obey the speed limits, stop completely at stop signs, and obey the rules of the road. It would have better reaction time than a human being, never lose its temper or fall asleep at the wheel. On the other hand, do you trust a self-directing vehicle on city streets?

Today there are monitoring devices you have installed on your car. They evaluate the driver’s style in exchange to a break of up to 25% on insurance. Dash cams are becoming common for recording video of driving in case the driver needs a record of events. A self-directed car would contain both.

Think of the impact of self-directed vehicles on business. Taxicab companies could eliminate the expensive driver. For courier companies, and pizza delivery the car would also require an autonomous robot that could move from the car to the door. Those are almost with us now.

You see the impact. IF taxicab drivers are out of a job, then so would bus drivers, truck drivers, pizza delivery drivers and couriers.

Now some of the drivers might be for transit buses. However, if the self-driving car takes the sting out of commuting, why would anyone ride the bus?

Ahh. The dreaded DUI. If cars drive themselves, then we become passengers. Would a person need a driver’s license to command such a car? What about the drunk? If they could take an automated cab, why not their own self-directed car?

Ouch. Imagine the congestion as everyone returns to private vehicles to commute to work. I see more parking lots in the core of the city once more.

That is where my imagination breaks down. I can the self-directed car following a GPS map to go from my home to my office. However, I can’t image how the car would handle the parking lot. And there’s no steering wheel.

So in the near future, you will no longer need a driver’s license.

Then there is the horror writer in me. Imagine all those self-directed cars on the highway. What if they become sentient? Or more mundane, what if their software update creates a problem?

When did man learn the speed of light?

The history of science has all sorts of interesting stories. When did scientists determine that the speed of light was finite?

What brought this to my attention was talking to a person, an apparently well educated American teacher, who didn’t know whether the speed of light was infinite or finite.

In ancient times, some famous  people argued that light was emitted from the eyes. (Actually it’s more complicated than that.) Euclid, the father of Geometry, and Ptolemy, the famous astronomer,  both accepted this viewpoint. Consequently they argued that the speed of light was infinite, for when we open our eyes we can see the most-distant star instantly.

This viewpoint dominated for more than sixteen hundred years. Remember Galileo? He dropped the two cannon balls from the top of the leaning tower of pizza to prove all objects fell at the same speed?  Well he tried to determine the speed of light and concluded, “If it is not infinite it must be extraordinarily rapid.”

Think about this.  Gutenberg had created the printing press. Luther had started the reformation. Columbus had discovered the New World.  This is the period the American colonies were created.

Then along came a Danish astronomer working at the Royal Observatory in Paris in 1676. Ole Rømer was observing one of the moons of Jupiter, Io.  This moon orbits Jupiter in 42.5 hours and it winks on/off as it passes into Jupiter’s shadow.

Ole Rømer noticed a variation in the time of this winking on/off throughout the year. The periods of Io appeared to be shorter when the Earth was approaching Jupiter than when receding from it.

See this BBC youtube on this

He estimated the speed of light at 220,000 kilometers per second. (Actually he didn’t us kilometers  because they hadn’t been invented yet.)  Think of that speed.  Something moving at that speed would go around the earth five and a half times in a second.  No wonder some people didn’t accept his figure. In reality he was about 25% under the actual speed.

So, to prove that the speed of light was finite,  a scientist needed a reliable clock, a telescope, and  Jupiter’s moon Io.

How important is the speed of light? The Special Theory of Relativity rests on it. All physics and astronomy rests on it.



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