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September, 2011:


Why would anyone read two histories of Byzantium? Well, if the first one is mainly useful in putting you to sleep on a bad night, you might need a second to actually understand Byzantium. I finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium about six weeks ago, and I suspect it didn’t satisfy because it was, well, short. (It’s an abbreviation of a much longer 3-volume work by the same author.) Norwich tells us all the things that happened in the eleven hundred years that the Byzantine empire existed, but he doesn’t have room in a mere 400 pages to analyze why things evolved as they did. By the time I was done, the Byzantine empire seemed to cook down to pseudocode:

UNTIL MuslimsKnockOverConstantinople;

So unless you’re an insomniac like me, I recommend A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory (Blackwell, 2005) which trades some of the repetitive detail for more and better analysis. It’s a much more readable book overall, and seems targeted at laypeople who don’t already know the broad outlines of the story. (I’m guessing it’s a 300-level textbook.) Recommended.

In other recent reading, I went back to Colin Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology (Taplinger, 1972) to locate his definition of a “self-actualizer,” which may help me in designing a character for an upcoming story. The book is an explication of Abraham Maslow‘s views on psychology, which Wilson admires and mentions in many of his other books. I ended up reading a lot more than I intended, and realize that I may have to buy another copy of the book. The one I have was cheap, sure, but it was previously owned by a person who underlined probably 50% of the book without more than a handful of marginal notes. How is it useful to have all that underlining, if the purpose of underlining is to call attention to especially brilliant or pertinent passages when you want to find them later? And when she (her name is on the flyleaf) decides to make a note, it only proves that she is stone deaf to Colin Wilson’s ironic sense of humor.

I’ll come back to Wilson’s books in a future entry on designing characters, but in the meantime, New Pathways in Psychology is useful, as is A Criminal History of Mankind (Mercury, 2005.) His 1956 breakout book, The Outsider, nails existentialism–right through the head. Not as engaging as his other work, but if you’re trying to design a disaffected young man (especially if you yourself are well-adjusted and generally happy) the blueprints are all right there.

Yesterday Amazon delivered the 32 GB MicroSD HC card I’d ordered for the Droid, and I had this insight: You know you’re old when the fact that a thing the size of your pinkie fingernail could swallow everything you’ve ever written without a burp (plus ebook editions of every book in the house, if they existed) still makes you boggle. I don’t know precisely how much stuff it could hold because I don’t have that much stuff. But I’ll do some math: At 3 MB per MP3, the card could hold 10,000 songs. At 3 minutes per song, that’s 30,000 minutes, or 500 hours of music. At 500 KB for an .epub novel, that’s 60,000 novels, which at a novel every single night is…165 years’ worth of novels.

I guess I’m old. My boggler is in excellent working order.

Odd Lots

  • Maybe it’s some of the recent solar storms (the sunspots were not spectacularly high) but I heard both Guyana and the Cayman Islands on 17m the other day–the first time I’ve seen any significant life on that band in several years.
  • I have yet to find an Android ebook reader app that will open and render an MS .lit file, of which I have several. No surprise: Having blown an early and promising start in ebook reader software, MS has recently announced that it is withdrawing the app. Reader is actually a nice piece of work, and the first ebook reader program I used regularly. DRMed .lit books are now just noise, and the rest of them will have to be translated by something like Calibre. DRM, especially when it’s abandoned, trains people to locate cracks and become pirates. Way to go, guys.
  • SanDisk just announced a thumb drive about the size of its own USB connector cap. 4, 8, or 16GB. I’ve now broken two thumb drives by leaving them plugged into the rear edge of a laptop and then tipping the laptop back. If that’s a common problem, this is definitely the solution.
  • What do you do with the Moon once you rope it down? (Watering it would be interesting, though Mars needs it more.)
  • This guy thinks like I do. Just ask Carol. (Thanks to Michael Covington for the link.)
  • I recently found a PDF describing the first computer I ever programmed for money. It was a…1 MHz…8080. It cost a boggling number of 1979 dollars, so Xerox ended up using most of the initial production run in-house. The 3200 cast a long shadow: I got so used to sitting in front of it that when I built a computer table later that year for my S100 CP/M system, I made it just high enough that the keyboard was precisely as far off the floor as the 3200’s, a height that I use in computer tables to this day.
  • How long did it take you to figure out what this really was? (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Russian President Medvedev has taken a liking to ReactOS, a long-running and mostly ignored attempt to create a driver-compatible, win32-friendly (via WINE) open source Windows clone. He’s suggesting that the Russian government fund it. Now if Medvedev can convince Putin, we could have quite a project on our hands.
  • I’d never thought much about how you recycle a dead refrigerator. Now I know.
  • Begorrah! Zombies are not a new problem. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • And if that machine gun in your hollow leg won’t slow them down, send them into sugar crash.

Goggling Google Goggles

As at least ten people by now have written to tell me (though Eric the Fruit Bat gets credit for being the first) Google has a project targeted at recognizing things in the physical world and looking them up online, as I wistfully wished for in my September 17, 2011 entry: Google Goggles. I vaguely recall hearing of the product on its first release, which (because it was for Android) was not something I could fool with on Windows.

There’s even a word for the general concept, though it’s not one I would use: augmented reality. I’m not looking for things to augment reality so much as simply document it–but in this age of exaggeration, I guess that’s pretty much the same thing.

Google Googles is a mobile app currently available for Android and iPhone. You aim your smartphone (assuming it has a camera, as virtually all do) at something, and tap a button. The phone takes a photo, and then (I assume) there’s a conversation with the Google mothership to see if the photo resembles anything already in the recognition database. The app is free, at least for Android, and I’ve been having some good fun with it trying to see what its limits are. Here’s my report:

Google Goggles recognized the following things:

  • A bottle of Coke Zero.
  • A conventional painting of Jesus Christ.
  • A conventional painting of St. Francis of Assisi.
  • Two different contemporary paintings of Ben Franklin.
  • A bottle of Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel.
  • The Colonel Sanders portion of the KFC logo. (Without “KFC”.)
  • The Virginia Cavaliers alternate logo.
  • The iconic Rolling Stones tongue logo.
  • The Insane Clown Posse logo.
  • The Dave Matthews Band logo.
  • The Hieroglyphics band logo.

It did not recognize the following things:

  • Me. No clue about my standard publicity photo, as seen in my blog header, even though it’s logged in Google Images.
  • A headshot of Isaac Asimov, also found on Google Images. I guess I don’t feel so bad.
  • QBit. (It states clearly that animals generally aren’t recognized.) It did say that he resembles a poodle, a kitten, and two bunnies. Goggles isn’t the first entity that thought QBit was a poodle, though I won’t mention the kitten part to him.
  • My Celtic peat cross. It said the cross resembled several tall, skinny women dressed in black. I can almost see that.
  • The Nike swoosh. Failed four times. Now that surprised me.
  • A tape measure.
  • A fork. It thought the fork resembled the Statue of Liberty.
  • A knife. It thought the knife resembled a white bunny.
  • A 430-ohm, 2-watt carbon resistor. It thought it resembled the Canadian flag.
  • A cordless telephone handset.
  • My Weber gas grill.
  • A pair of headphones. It said my headphones resembled a wristwatch.
  • A screwdriver, though it did say my screwdriver resembled photos of other screwdrivers.

I’m reasonably happy with this record, considering that Goggles is more a proof-of-concept than anything close to what I want to document (ok, awright already, augment) reality. It does seem to prefer things that are enormously popular. My first suspicion was that Goggles would not recognize anything that did not include OCR-able text, but most of the logos tested have no text, nor did the paintings of Jesus, St. Francis, and Franklin. Goggles had an impression that QBit was a small white animal, and there were flickers of recognition of a screwdriver. So far, so good. Cripes, it’s only 2011.

So. Share your success stories, if you have any. I’m modestly impressed.

Annotating Reality

We’ve had evening clouds here for well over a week. Maybe ten days. I’ve lost count, but I may well have to kiss off seeing that supernova in M101. That’s a shame, because I’ve downloaded the Google Sky Map app to my new Android phone, and I want to try it out under the stars.

The app knows what time it is and where you are, and if you hold the phone up against the sky, it will show you what stars/planets/constellations lie in that part of the sky. Move the phone, and the star map moves to reflect the phone’s new position. How the phone knows which way it’s pointed is an interesting technical question that I still need to research, but let it pass: The phone basically annotates your view of the sky, and that’s not only useful, it suggests boggling possibilities. I’m guessing there are now apps that will identify a business if you point your phone at it, and possibly display a menu (the food kind) or a list of daily sales and special deals. With a rich enough database, a phone could display short history writeups of historical buildings, identify landforms for hikers, and things like that.

That mechanism is not an original insight with me; Vernor Vinge described almost exactly that (and much more) in his Hugo-winning 2006 novel Rainbows End . Most of my current boggle stems from not expecting so much of it to happen this soon. When I read the book back in 2006 I was thinking 2060. We are well on our way, and may be there by 2040. (Vinge himself said 2025, but me, well, I’m a severe pessimist on such questions. How long have we been waiting thirty years for commercial fusion power?)

In general terms, I call this idea “annotating reality.” In its fully realized form, it would be an app that will tell me in very specific terms (and in as much detail as I request) what I’m looking at. I do a certain amount of this now, but with the limitation that I have to know how to name what I’m looking at, and that’s hit-or-miss. I have an excellent visual vocabulary in certain areas (tools, electronic components, wheeled vehicles, aircraft) and almost none in others (clothes, shoes, sports paraphernalia, exotic animals.) I was 25 before I’d ever heard the term “lamé” (metallic-looking cloth) and had no idea what it was when I saw it mentioned in one novel or another. I had indeed seen lamé cloth and lamé women’s shoes, but I didn’t know the word. It’s more than the simple ignorance of youth. As much as Carol and I are involved in the dog show scene, I still see dog breeds here and there that I don’t recognize. (Is that a bergamasco or a Swedish vallhund?) Even my core competence has limits: I received a Snap-On A173 radiator hose tool in Uncle Louie’s estate, and if it hadn’t had Snap-On’s part number on it I doubt that I’d know what it was even today, because I don’t work on cars.

I want something that lives in my shirt pocket and works like Google Images in reverse: Show it the image and it gives you the text description, with links to longer descriptions, reviews, and shopping. This is a nasty computational challenge; much worse, I’m guessing, than query-by-humming. (I’ve been experimenting with Android’s SoundHound app recently. Nice work!) Dual-core smartphones won’t hack it, and we’ll need lots more bandwidth than even our best 4G networks can offer.

But we’re working on it. Facial recognition may be worst-case, so I have hopes that the same algorithms that can discriminate between almost-identical faces can easily tell a tubax from a soprillo. I can’t imagine that identifying the Insane Clown Posse band logo is all that hard–unless, of course, you don’t follow rap. (I don’t.) Bp. Sam’l Bassett did some clever googling and identified Li’l Orby for me, but as with the Insane Clowns logo, the problem isn’t so much drawing distinctions as building the database. Pace Sagan, there are billions and billions of things right down here in the workaday world. Giving them all names may be the ultimate exercise in crowdsourcing. But hey, if we can do Wikipedia in forward, we can do it in reverse. C’mon, let’s get started–it’s gotta be easier than fusion power!

UPDATE: Well, if I read Bruce Sterling more I’m sure I’d have known this, but Google’s already started, with Google Goggles. I downloaded the app to the Droid X2, and surezhell, it knew I was drinking a Coke Zero. The app said clearly that it doesn’t work on animals, but when I snapped QBit it returned photos of three white animals as “similar,” including a poodle, a kitten, and two bunnies. Close enough to warrant a cigar, at least in 2011. More as I play with it. (And thanks to the six or seven people who wrote to tell me!)

Talking About Con Crud

I’ve been quiet here in part because Carol and I bought new smartphones on Saturday afternoon: a pair of Droid X2 units with which we are (so far) completely delighted. That said, I’ve discovered that research into the Dalvik VM and bytecode set does not help you learn how to move icons onto your Android desktop. Smartphones don’t come with manuals in the box anymore. Preston Gralla will sell me one on October 5. Until then, my learning process will consist of mildly Web-guided poking around.

More on this later. In the meantime, Michael Covington recently reminded me of a phenomenon I had not thought about in some years: con crud. Basically, people who go to SFF or media/gamer cons often come home with a nasty cold that sometimes borders on flu. Con celebrities have taken to refusing handshakes and hugs for fear of catching it (PvP guru Scott Kurtz is one) but nobody seems to agree on what-all causes it nor how to avoid it.

I’ve gotten con crud more than once. Interestingly, it wasn’t always at SFF cons. I came down with a nasty case after the 1983 (I think) Trenton Computer Festival. And the mother of all con crud episodes for me was a computer trade show in 1992, at which I came down with a bad case of bacterial pneumonia after three days in the PC Techniques show booth. It took some heavy-duty antibiotics and a week flat on my ass in bed to become functional again.

While there’s little agreement online as to causes, there are statistical bumps in the discussion on the following points:

  • Not enough sleep. Staying up all night is a form of recreation in itself.
  • Physical contact with other people. Hugs, not drugs!
  • Bad food. People eat sugar and fat at cons. (Never at home, right?)
  • Poor personal hygiene. We’re having too much fun to shower!

Sleep is certainly an issue. When I don’t sleep enough, I get sick. I have noticed that (within my own circles) morning people are generally healthier than night people, and among those I know well enough to ask, night people get way less sleep than morning people. There are of course causality questions here, but I think I can say confidently that the con crowd is dominated by night people.

The notion that fat and sugar suppress your immune system, and the flipside that fruits and veggies and whole grains strengthen it, is unproven and probably nonsense. (If it were true I’m sure I’d be long dead.) Skipping meals entirely may be more of an issue here. Hugs and handshakes may put some loose viruses on your skin, but breathing other people’s air is probably a more potent vector, and anybody who works in a big company cube farm is breathing other people’s viruses at con-scale all day, every day. Poor personal hygiene is an issue, though it may be as simple as not washing your hands as much as you do in mundane life.

I do have a suggested cause that I have not yet seen online: talking too much. Some people talk for a living. Most people work and study largely in silence. Then they go to a con and spend three days and three nights talking almost continuously. By the end of Day 2 of booth duty at early Coriolis show booths I generally felt scratchy in the throat, and when the whole thing was done and over I could barely talk at all. Basically, when you shred your vocal cords all weekend, you provide a stressed environment in your throat that’s easy prey for microorganisms. Not sleeping may then be enough to push you over the edge into serious infection.

If this is true, there’s no easy way around it. Cons are social gatherings, after all, and the real draw are not the exhibits or conference sessions but all the interesting people. My prescription will get some people angry but I think it will work: Talk all you want, but be in bed by midnight and sleep until 9:30. Try it. Let me know if it works.

Odd Lots

A One-Tube Electroscope

I found the circuit below by accident, while flipping through my library of Popular Electronics looking for something else. It was published in the October 1961 issue, and caught my interest because a friend of mine built it back in 1964. It was a cool thing to watch in action. It’s an electroscope that detects static charge by using the grid in a vacuum tube to control conduction. Bring an object with a static charge on it within a couple of feet of the detector disk, and the NE-2 neon bulb will light or dim, its brightness proportional to the strength and polarity of the charge. Positive charges make the bulb glow more brightly. Negative charges will dim it, or even darken it completely if the charge is strong enough to force the tube into cutoff.


(The full article can be found here–2.6 MB PDF.) The detector is a metal disk five or six inches in diameter. It can be any conductive metal. When Art built his he used sheet aluminum and it worked just fine. The center hole is sized to press-fit on the grid cap of a 6J7, which is connected to the tube’s control grid. The 6J7 works well here because it’s a metal tube, and is inherently shielded by its metal shell. (The article doesn’t call it out, but I think pin 1, connected to the shell, should be grounded to the chassis.) A 6K7 or 6S7 will substitute pin-for-pin, and I think any metal tube with the control grid brought out to a cap will work if you get the pin connections right for the tube type. NOS tubes of this sort can be had for $5-$6 from places like Antique Electronic Supply. I don’t know how well the GT (glass) versions of the tube will work, since they lack the total shielding of the “standard” 6J7’s metal shell.

The power transformer called out was common and cheap back in the day, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one now. The usual dodge is to use two 6.3V filament transformers, and connect them back-to-back. (These used to be sold at Radio Shack. I’m not sure if they are anymore.) You can light the filament from the joined 6.3V secondaries, and take isolated 120VAC from the primary of the second transformer. The 6J7’s heater current is 300 ma. Any filament transformer that can source that much current will do.

I find it interesting that raw AC is applied to the plate of the tube without rectification. The current is in fact rectified by the tube (tubes conduct in only one direction) with rectifier current controlled by the 6J7’s first grid. My first thought was that it works like a thyratron, but there’s no latching effect. Current through the tube is controlled by the charge on the grid, and then in a linear way.

It would be interesting to figure out a circuit that would indicate with a sensitive meter rather than a neon bulb, and if I build it I may try a few things. The only cautions I offer here relate to the voltage: 120V, even isolated from the wall, is dangerous. Don’t work on the circuit with power applied. To be safe, yank the plug out of the wall before you open the box or flip the chassis over. There’s no voltage on the detector plate, so that can be touched even while the device is on.

All that said, it’s a great entry-level demonstration of how vacuum tubes work.

Odd Lots

  • Wired has a nice piece on the 1859 Carrington Event; basically, the strongest solar storm in the last 500 years, assuming ice core data is a reliable proxy for storm strength. Early landline telegraph operators actually disconnected their batteries and passed traffic solely on power induced in the lines by solar activity. Whew. Now that’s QRP!
  • Alas, even with sunspot numbers hovering at 120, I’m not hearing much DX out here. I’m not even hearing the East Coast. So much for Cycle 24.
  • There’s a difference between “loving reading” and “loving reading what the literary class loves to read.” We can teach the first. By teaching the second, we may teach a good many students to stop reading completely. (Thanks to Rev. Sharon Hart for the link.)
  • Here be the history of Godwin’s Law.
  • From the September 1922 issue of Popular Science comes a crystal radio in a corn-cob pipe, shown in one of the geekiest Roaring Twenties radio geek photos ever taken. I doubt this would work (well) but I suppose it had to be tried. (Thanks to David Stafford for the link.)
  • This radio geek photo shows a set that would certainly work (schematic here) but I’m not sure he would have been let on an airliner even in 1936.
  • By 1949, radio geek photos were in serious decline, but 15-year-old Hope Lange gave it a damned good try.
  • By sheer coincidence, the cover of that very same issue of Popular Science cited above for the corn-cob radio shows a drawing of a “monocopter,” an unlikely but at least physically possible device modeled on maple tree seeds, which I mentioned in Odd Lots back on July 28. This should be easy to model; has anybody ever seen it done?
  • Maybe I’ve been writing SF for so long that this article sounds a little obvious to me, but some of the points do need to be borne in mind by writers new to the field, particularly #3. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • This was Big News in Germany. Those people need to get out more.
  • I’m not sure what it is either, but if you’re going to cite its name as PIGORASS, you’d really better expand the acronym.

We’re All 3 1/2″ Now

Just a quick update on the vintage 5″ floppy project: I bought a half-height Teac 1.2 MB floppy drive at OEM Parts earlier this afternoon, since I was buying silver mica caps anyway. I took the cleanest of the three or four they had on the shelf. Back home, I wrestled the side panel off an EMachines box built in 2004 and put some memory in it, then pried away the space-holder from the vacant front bay and slid the Teac drive into place.

The machine came from Best Buy with neither a floppy drive nor a floppy cable. The usual floppy drive cable connector is present on the mobo. As luck would have it (or maybe not luck so much as ancient habit) I found a very old floppy cable at the bottom of my Odd PC Junk bin. It’s the five-plug model, with two sets of both types of floppy drive data connectors. I plugged the controller end into the mobo, connected the pre-twist edge connector (that is, the one closest to the mobo) to the Teac, plugged a power connector into the drive, and powered the machine up.

XP ran as expected; it’s the old machine from our church, and I know it well. Windows knew that there was now a drive on the floppy controller, but reported it as 3 1/2″. I booted back into BIOS, but unlike the older machines I recall, there was no BIOS setting to specify what size floppy drive was in the box. Using the post-twist edge connector prevented Windows from seeing the drive at all.

I guess we’re all 3 1/2″ now, if we’re floppy at all.

The drive isn’t stone dead: When I put a 1990 TopSpeed Modula 2 floppy in it, the drive sounds like it’s indexing across the surface of the disk, but never returns any data to Windows. The drive may be bad, or the disk may be bad. Certainly the machine doesn’t appear to know what a 5″ floppy drive is. All in all, it’s really not 1990 anymore.

This was an hour’s project, not a day’s project or even an evening’s project. I’ve spent about as much time on it as I think it’s worth. I’m not going to dump the diskettes, but until a machine old enough to know 5″ from 3″ finds its way here, this is as far as I’m taking it.