March 21, 2010

507 Mechanical Movements: Mechanisms and Devices. Henry T. Brown

This has been reprinted for about a hundred years now, and it needs a rebirth as a catalogue of existing plans for whichever 3D printers or material-removing equivalents become popular. We could index them not just by the proper name of the gear or linkage but by the action it effects and the problem it's meant to avoid.

Not that I'm going to do it, lazy lazy, but I look forward to the news.

Update, after poking around: there's a lovely but purely 2D physics program, Phun or Algodoo, that lets you design and operate 2D linkages and gears, and I've read that one can take screenshots of that and export to svg and cut the 2D parts at, e.g., Ponoko. Makerbot's Thingiverse is a catalogue of 3D parts, including gears and linkages, which is where I'd put the 507 devices. Boy, does this seem to me to call for a formal and considered hierarchy as well as a folksonomy.

Find in a Library: 507 Mechanical Movements (That only links to one particular edition; check your libraries for the title.)

So wrote clew.

July 28, 2009


DARPA is funding an autonomous biomass-powered military robot (external combustion engine!). That should occupy the parts of your imagination waiting for Volume Eight of Girl Genius.

So wrote clew.

February 27, 2009

Build your own Earth Oven, Kiko Denzer, Hannah Field, Alan Scott

Subtitle: A low-cost, wood-fired, mud oven, simple sourdough bread, perfect loaves.

It's a nice combination of making it an experimental, hands-on, try-and-fail-and improve task for non-bookish people, and providing pointers to more specialized knowledge useful for planning complicated better ovens. I approve of the soil texturing and settling experiments.

I'm also really impressed that they seriously discuss efficiency, and the Jeavons 'efficiency trap', and why alternative oven designs might be a better use of fuel if you can't do an enormous, carefully sequenced amount of baking with each firing. (Which means your bread has to keep, if you're baking for only a few people which probably means adjusting the recipe; one extreme being, I should think, Swedish rye crackers, which have the hole in the middle so they can be stored on a pole to keep dry between their infrequent bakings.)

Find in a Library: Build your Own Earth Oven

So wrote clew.

January 03, 2009

The Retting of Flax and Hemp, Paul W. Allen

There's a New World flax that makes a pretty cottage garden flower, with pale blue flowers on long tough stems. Tying bundles of these stems to the downspout in winter does not turn them into recognizable flax, alas. But then I didn't know what I was looking for -- this little leaflet has line-drawings of how the stems should be coming apart when the fiber is ready to be freed.

It's a microbial process, of course, eating away everything but the final desirable fiber; no wonder linen is so long-lasting when we get it free.

There are lots of tactics, or were, when it was more done, depending on whether the area was warm or cool, well-watered or frosty or only dewy when the crop came in. Some made it whitest, some strongest. Some required a lot of labor and some more labor than that.

The leaflet was reprinted by the Caber Press, which specializes in reissuing reference works for `material culture', q.v.; there's an 1895 report on hemp culture, if you want to start at the beginning.

You could also get the original Industrial Fermentations, The Chemical Catalog Company, 1926; or U.S.D.A. bulletins 1185 and 669. Maybe.

So wrote clew.

May 21, 2008

Visualization for Information Retrieval, Jin Zhang

I was looking for examples of scientific visualization, which is a completely different thing. Information visualization is mind-maps, or nested folders (and how is that tree displayed?), or the 'volcano' desktop, or a fisheye, or a lot of other thing discussed here. Of course, all of those are 'really' algorithmic; weighted graphs or probability distributions... There are more equations and matrices here than visualizations.

The chapters on ambiguity and the meaning of metaphor were interesting as abstractions of what I had been thinking of as the human tendency to error. This is an overlap between CSci and CogSci, so citing Lakoff makes sense.

Find in a Library: Visualization for Information Retrieval

So wrote clew.

May 18, 2008


undrawn bow.png

About Python, of course, and a response to xkcd's Lisp Cycles and Python, q.v.

So wrote clew.

August 13, 2005

Traditional Woodworking Handtools, Graham Blackburn

I actually want a book that might be called "Traditional Woodworking with Handtools"; one with no interest in collecting the tools, knowing their provenance etc., but rather organized around what I want to do to a piece of wood, with an explanation of what tools and procedure you'd do it with. The O'Reilly 'cookbooks' are doubtless my model. You'd think such a book would be useful and therefore popular and easy to find, but on the whole I find either books on specific projects, which I can sometimes take apart for their component techniques; or books on all the uses of one tool, ditto; or, like this, a book about many kinds of tools. This one is useful because, although it's organized by tool, it organizes the tools by purpose; and discusses them with enough practicality to summarize their use and jigging and sharpening.

Ah, sharpening, there's the rub. Clearly it makes plenty of people anxious, given the many this-is-how-I webpages (for which I'm often grateful). Traditional Woodoworking Handtools has a couple pages on sharpening cabinet scrapers, which make clear the results I want but not how the amateur-handed can get there. I might have put together an adequate jig for jointing a worn edge, by dint of borrowing a nice true piece of scrap titanium from my other half and buying a new undished stone; but putting the hook on is just beyond me, by hand. (And now you know some of what I've been doing instead of writing book-reviews, or indeed reading anything that requires thought.) Conveniently, Lee Valley makes a little device that purports to do the hook for you; today I'll see.

Also conveniently, scrapers are pretty cheap and often come with a nice edge, but treating them as disposable doesn't seem right.

Back to the book at hand; I think it would be delightful for a collector who also used the tools, and it's mildly useful for how-to purposes. There's one little oddity in the typesetting; the font is slightly old-fashioned (don't recognize it & can't find a colophon), and ligatures the 'st' and 'ct' letter-pairs. This looks wrong to me; it ligatures all of them, when I feel - suspect - that in the best typesetting ligatures have something to do with position in the word; and it doesn't ligature 'ft', which I just as nebulously feel really ought to be tied. Anyhow, I thought the effect on reading was more lumpy and precious than elegantly archaic.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

February 25, 2005

The Garden in the Machine, Claus Emmeche

Subtitle: The Emerging Science of Artificial Life

Note to self; see The Computational Beauty of Nature and An Introduction to Genetic Algorithms instead. " faut cultiver notre jardin ..."

ISBN: 0691029032

November 20, 2004

Jacquard's Web, James Essinger

Bruce Sterling divides technology into string and glue, doesn't he? String is older. Information technology was first a child of string (some children were lost).

Most people who care already know that the Jacquard loom used punch cards to store the amazingly complex patterns of fashionable brocade and damask cloth; Essinger can only stretch that out into a few chapters, mostly related to the economic importance of cloth, because not a lot is known about Jacquard's life and what is mostly comes before his inventing. The rest of the book is about the currently-more-interesting descent of computing, of which Jacquard's looms were parents twice: once to part of Babbage's machines, d.s.p., again to telegraphic paper tape, most fruitfully to Hollerith's punchcards. Hollerith was related to a weaver/industrialist who used Jacquard looms.

Quite a lot of this book is devoted to the history of I.B.M., descended mostly from Hollerith's company but also some others, including one that made cheese-slicers... Remington Rand is a more suitable example, since it was a powerful maker of typewriters partly from its experience in making sewing-machines, which required speed, precision and enough reliability to run without a dedicated maintenance team. It's not actually very surprising that clothing should have several times impelled a technological leap. It's a tempting use of capital, since so much money is spent on it at all times, and the standards are high; really good handwork is still better at some things than what machines can do. If the next industrial revolution is 'mass customization', it will probably start in clothes again. I hope so, because it's an offense to aesthetics that so many people have so many clothes that don't really fit.

I wonder if Hollerith's cards were the first time data lived naturally in a database. It's an error-inviting pain to fill out even a two-dimensional table by hand, let alone a deeper one.

It's a pity that information never went from cloth back into the machines; I imagine it as long-term storage: punch the cards until the design is right, weave a reference sample, and when the cards wear out unweave the sample through a machine that generates cards from cloth: then save the first weaving from those cards as the new reference. This wouldn't be a good idea, since punching more cards from cards is easy.

I also wonder where Jacquard got the idea for punched cards. (Or where one Falcon, who built the first but worse punchcard loom got it, if Jacquard got the idea from Falcon.) I have a Theory, actually; bobbin-lace patterns. Bobbin-lace was as expensive and slow to make as brocade, and the patterns changed with fashion much faster than one person could make up a suit of lace. Complicated patterns require pinholes punched into stiff card, which give a skilled lacemaker enough direction to make up the pattern. Middlemen made up many many cards corresponding to small pieces of a fashionable pattern and handed them out to lacemakers as they picked up the finished pieces from the last pattern. It would have been important that the patterns lined up well to be invisibly sewn together, although the threads did not weave from one piece into the next. I think there must have been a lot of these cards around, especially in a town as devoted to luxury clothing as Lyons was. It's still a big intellectual jump to switch from a human feeling with a pin to know where thread-crossing should go, to a machine that always crosses in the same places feeling a card to decide whether a crossing should happen; but it would explain why sheaves of punched cards 'looked like' information storage.

Online glossaries give 'lace cards' as a synonym for punchcards, but they also sometimes suggest that that only refers to a card with all possible holes punched out, giving it a resemblance to simple lace. On the other hand, that resemblance would provide an easy false etymology.

I can't find an online picture of how the early automatic lacemaking machines work, although Nottingham has a promising history of mostly-Nottingham lace machine inventions; the Jacquard idea came in after decades of improving knitting-frames to approximate the action of lace-twisting.

ISBN: 0192805770

September 27, 2004

How to Use the Steel Square, Frank D. Graham

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare

For builders, she flirts behind the framing square.

This is a chapter of a 1923 book, so who knows, maybe Vincent was familiar with it. It doesn't mention either her or Euclid that I've noticed; the practical geometry is given as 'cookbook' algorithms, although sometimes an explanation of what works ends with a minatory Why?. Or, p. 25,

The intelligent workman should not be satisfied with knowing which number to use but he should want to know why each particular number is used.

followed by an easy-to remember octagon diagram. I'm a little bemused by vitia's worry over the bifurcation of vocational and accrediting, let alone liberal, education; surely the use of language isn't really more socioeconomically more discontinuous than the use of math? Is it taught more discontinuously? No, I forgot; if this synopsis of teaching styles vitia linked to is a fair description, even math is taught differently to different classes, in ways that reinforce class. (The varieties of teaching also strengthen pointy-haired, mauve-database idiocy in the capitalist classes, if I read it right. I'm so happy I'm a Beta; discuss.)

So! No wonder I like the carpenter's guide. It is useful; it assumes the audience is competent in Euclidean geometry but doesn't assume the audience is educated in it; it should expand the capabilities of either a theorist or a jack-of-all-trades. Specifically, I like the explanations of the tables still engraved on decent squares. Some of the geometry, e.g. adding a another straightedge to make a slide-rule for specific problems (squaring the circle, pitching a gear wheel), is very pretty in itself. I can't think of a use for To find the diameter of a circle whose area is equal to the sum of the areas of two given circles; cooperage? Custom cakes?

It would be just as easy nowadays to go get a calculator as to find the extra straightedge. On the other hand, I don't think my calculator has explanations of jack rafters. Any undergraduate's graphing calculator has room, and it's a pity if they don't apply some to roofing. Maybe they do; perhaps someone with a shiny new calculator will consult her manual and bring the good word.

ISBN: 1894572343

April 18, 2004

Growing Clean Water, B. C. Wolverton, Ph.D., John D. Wolverton

The elder Wolverton was a NASA scientist and is an environmental engineer. Indeed, this book is published by his engineering company and is a tacit advertisement for their work, case-study by case-study. They don't mention any of the competing designs, let alone the homebuilt oddities. For homebrew or humor, try The Humanure Handbook. If you're wondering how your small town can improve its municipal water-treatment system, though, the dead-earnest prose won't be a drawback; it sounds like an educational filmstrip. (I think that's a professional requirement for aerospace engineers. The book dedication implies that he was thought dangerously exuberant at NASA.)

One photograph of sewage treatment lagoons looks much like the next to me, but I did enjoy the discussion of which plants do good phytoremediation in theory, and which survive in practice. Native ones survive. So does water hyacinth. Water hyacinth is famously invasive, and this book doesn't discuss how to cultivate it in your treatment lagoons without guaranteeing its perpetual presence in all your other waterways. Maybe it's already ineradicable, and we might as well plant it somewhere useful.

The discussion of how many contaminants are becoming common in water is sadly familiar. Phytoremediation of heavy-metal and radioisotope contamination can't be the whole answer (you have to harvest the contaminated plants), but it's cheering to think that biological wastes can be more effectively managed than they are. There's a plan in this book for treatment of both water and air coming off a CAFO, which is one extreme need; and a optimistic comment that even a dense city, say, Sydney, could stop dumping sewage onto its beaches by building a skyscraper treatment plant. First sludge digestion would happen in the basement. The methane produced by that would be used to pump the result up to planters at the top of the building, and the water would switchback through increasingly clean swamps in each story, emerging as limpid as a Wordsworth stream. Alarming thing to go up in one's neighborhood, I admit, but not logically more alarming than pouring it untreated onto the rivers and beaches.

Unstylish as it is, I find this much more convincing than the cherryblossom posturing of Cradle to Cradle.

ISBN: 0-9709791-0-X

February 17, 2004

The Bug, Ellen Ullman

Ullman does write about what programming is like, and why it drives people and drives them crazy. My other half and I probably gave away a dozen copies of Close to the Machine to puzzled friends and relatives (I bet they read it, too: I used to disingenuously add, "It's the programming we find so compelling. The sex scenes are a San Francisco thing.")

No heroic coders in The Bug; one doomed coder, a tragic victim who makes everyone around him miserable too. I've read a review that couldn't see him as a tragic figure, because, I think, the reviewer didn't imagine how compelling programming can be. If not seen by The Light That Failed, he's really quite repellant. No worse than the poet of Ars Poetica, though.

I don't know if you need to have been a programmer or a poet to read this as a tragedy. You probably do need to program a bit to see that it's a classic fair mystery, very like the Golden Age ones with train-tables and floorplans of the country house. I was delighted when I decided she'd pulled that off in pseudocode instead of a time-schedule. Neither the story nor the mood depend on 'getting' the mystery; both are like The Gold Bug Variations, allusive and sad. "I alone am escaped to tell thee"; "I wish I were what I was when I wanted to be what I am now".

ISBN: 0-385-50860-3

January 22, 2004

Engineer's Mini-Notebook Sensor Projects, Forrest M. Mims III

Building a damp sensor out of two tacks in a clothespin held open by an aspirin tablet works.

In a saucer, soggy aspirin conducts excellently well, making this more rapidly sensitive than almost-but-not-quite-touching contacts. (Next toy, just because it's more elegant: instead of a storebought battery, retro stacks of copper & zinc, separated by dry paper. I wonder if atmospheric dampness will get false alarms out of that one.)

The low-contrast graph-paper background of Mim's little "Notebooks" is unhelpful, I find, though the neat handwritten layout is charming and clear.

Radio Shack Cat. No. 62-5026

(No ISBN at all! though Mims has written more conventionally catalogued books.)

January 12, 2004

Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, Fred Moody

Subtitle: A Love Story

The sweet naivete, boom, and disillusionment of "old" and "new" Seattle are the stage for the fiscal naivete, recklessness, and resignation of the author, an old Seattlite. He was poor but honest, an alternative journalist, until he was finally swept up in the dream of riches - alas, just late enough to lose almost everything. Likewise, he follows the career of one unworldly but technically adept sculptor in granite and radioactivity; and a bunch of would-be-worldly programmers, most of whom lose vast heaps of money; and Bill Gates, of course.

These are combined because, to Moody's eye, Seattle's innocence was lost to the money of the tech boom. We had innocence? Needleless seamstresses and Boeing's Star Wars money *ever* had innocence? I wonder. There's a lot of dirty Seattle history as well as the claim of a 'lost age' of consensual politics. I actually thought of the WTO protests, with which Moody opens the book, as a sign of innocence; the chamber of commerce, or whatever, thought it would be a feather in the city cap - the protesters thought protest might change things. Innocents all.

I was somewhat amused by Moody's move in the late '70s, early '80s to Bainbridge Island to get away from the uncool, gentrifying changes in Seattle. I'm amused because my family moved there at about the same time, when I was a kid, and B.I. was in my experience much more status-conscious and social-climbing than most of Seattle was a decade later.¹

I add this scrap of my personal psychological history, because Seattle... is full of Moody's. He's all about the self-defeating, polite, work-to-live ethos of Seattle, with a restrained but identifiable undertone of "But in the 60s...". I think it's very odd that he didn't notice for years (decades?) that this is an inheritance from Asian settlers, as well as Scandinavian ones. When the consensual politics is consensual, it's great, although it isn't quick. When the work-to-live principle leaves room for what people actually do - ski, build wooden boats, cook, commit more socially recognized arts - also delightful. Moody's mockery and despair at the unimaginative, expensive city efforts to be "world class" by building copies of anything big that other cities have has all my sympathy. I still live in the city itself, so am domestically affronted by the rotten-borough sports stadiums, to start with.

But he loses my sympathy, nearly my comprehension, by a fixed and inexplicable failure to see that technocracy has also been a long Seattle inheritance - mining, Boeing, aluminum - and that many technologists are as purely moved by the passion for what they're doing as more abstract artists are. His unworldly artists are victims; his unworldly programmers are comic children. How he could write this way after several immersive histories of Seattle tech endeavors, I don't know. I'll have to read them.

A friend of mine, when I expostulated on this, said it was obvious most techies are just in it for the money and hate the actual work; he adduced the career of a friend of his.² It's a sloppy argument, analagous to my dismissing all "art" because I know people who are "artists" out of a desire to be cool and shocking and free of petty social constraints of decency. ¹¹

On the other hand, I can understand being too annoyed to admit that the numerate and logical get joy in what they do and money to boot. To be fair to Moody, he sees the joy in Bill Gates and in some of the people at the HIT Lab. He just finds it hard to see in anyone (except Gates) who's practical at managing money; I think that's a bit of "But in the 60's..." leftover. He says it better than that:

... I felt it myself: an unpalatable, unendurable mix of horror, envy, disgust, and prurience.

Was that a good state of soul to look for startup work in? No. He overreached, he fell, he sat through the Slough of Despond at And afterwards he started working for the Metro bus authority, which he describes as thoughtful, civic and determined; and observes Gates giving away money to mend market failures the rest of the country won't conceptually admit. There's still some old Seattle here.

It would be interesting to compare Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver B.C. for their reactions to wealth, bust, and social shock.

ISBN: 0-312-30421-8

¹ I asked my mother how she saw it as an adult; she said that it probably had had hippie cred until right about when we moved there - my parents weren't looking for status fights - but not necessarily more than Fremont or Ballard or South Park, even at the time. I can see Moody's belief as one in good faith, then, although I don't think it's very perceptive. Or maybe these things are particularly bad for teenagers, although I know my parents experienced them too.

²This makes me slightly ill, as I don't expect this to produce technology that's very good for people. When the coders are weirdos who love what they're doing, they can someday convert us to the same weird love; but how is someone who hates it to begin with to know that it doesn't have to hate us back?

¹¹It's an eternal battle, the attempt to substitute wealth for coolth, or v.v., or either for virtue.

January 01, 2004

Handmade, Drew & Louise Langsner

The cover bills the book as "old world recipes, hospitality, barns & farmhouses..." (much more); this is partly true, but it's equally striking as a slice of 1970s half-measures.

The authors left the US and toured Greece and Turkey, Yugoslavia and Switzerland, on a motorcycle in 1971 & 1972; they had no plan but to get in touch with a highly developed attunement of humankind and nature. They brought back pictures and recipes; they considered settling as mostly-subsistence farmers in Northern Europe, but didn't.

It's not as annoying a book as some of these are, largely because it's not idiotically romantic. They point out that the stone walls that charm them in Greece are horribly vulnerable to the frequent earthquakes, for instance. They notice that goat-culture around the Mediterranean is a final and destructive stage - goats browse practically anything to death, and nearly all the wood and soil is therefore gone, but because the wood and soil are gone goats are about the only way left for agriculture to support people.¹ (This is, I deduce, why Heifer International teaches people to bring their animals prunings instead of letting the animals browse - more work, but safer in the long run.) They're wonderfully full of the ineffable joy of simple pleasures, which I am hardly against, but am a little suspicious of in tourists. (They were hardy tourists, but not up to finishing an apprenticeship as a white cooper, for instance. Began it, though.)

What they liked that I admire, and am glad they photographed, is the brilliant handmade work of people who are very nearly self-sufficient. A good stercorary is a worthy thing. The canny use of light, irregular wood to brace Mediterranean roofs is a great art; so is the Lapp and Norwegian and Swiss use of enormous quantities of enormous timbers to build complex buildings that last for centuries against snowfall, avalanches, and bears.

Clever ideas from the last: a bow-tie-shaped floorboard running the length of the house to handle seasonal compression; logging only in winter, when the freeze and the snow cover protect the delicate alpine topsoil - otherwise dragging logs gives one runnels in the soil, which tend to compound themselves even in less challenging climates.

The Turkish drop-spindle is, they report, easier than the Greek for the beginner to use, and when full it slips apart and comes out of an already-wound ball of yarn.

¹Which came first?

ISBN: 0-517-514206

December 17, 2003

The Secrets of Real Lace, Elizabeth M. Kurella

This particular book is about how to identify how a piece of lace was made, so it has many comparative closeups of machine laces and the handmade 'real' laces they imitated. The oddity is that the worst fault of the machine laces - the one visible from more than three inches away - is their poor large-scale design. It seems as though it would have been technically possible for them to be designed as well as the handmade ones, or even better, or most likely exactly the same. Maybe the machines were awfully hard to program. (To look up: Lace Machines and Machine Laces, Pat Earnshaw, 1986. Lace was so valuable and the market for it so large that lacemaking machinery must have been at the edge of possibility - patterned knits by machine in the late seventeenth c., jacquard apparatus lace (?) by 1825.)

The main difference between the machine and hand lace, especially the (unbelievably labor-intensive) bobbin laces, is that the machine lace is done with more or fewer repetitions of only one or two stitches in one direction. Once the author points it out, it is easy to see the effect of that, something like a picture from a dot-matrix printer - even far away there's a direction and grain to the fabric that overrides the decorative pattern in it. Hand lace can completely change the direction and roughness and shape as well as the density of the stitch, so that the elements - petals, swags, feathers - are shaded and grained like the things they represent. The result is like good engraving of the same picture.

Under a magnifying glass, the surprise in bobbin lace is that there's no difference between the material design and the background; the regular threads from the tightly-twisted net in the background unplait, hop a tiny distance into a motif, participate in some quite different kind of weaving, and can come out of the motif to plait up with threads they were nowhere near on their way in.

I don't know where to file books on lace - art, technology, or clothing? Possibly all three.

ISBN: 0-9642871-0-2

October 16, 2003

The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing, William E. Kasdorf, ed.

A probably-useful summary of how digital publishing could work and what tools are available now. Very much aimed at existing publishers, in the part I read. I am more interested in how one makes a digital library, especially of public domain work, which is not quite the same thing, but I was happy to see some acronyms turn up where I expected them.

I only got halfway through, as another hold was put on it at the library before I could extend my original borrowing. I am taking it back promptly like a good citizen, not leaving it in my "I'll finish it tomorrow" ziggurat like a Rhinedwarf.

Found because of Dorothea Salo, who is one of the contributors.

ISBN: 0-231-12499-6

October 01, 2003

The Humane Interface, Jef Raskin

I liked the introduction to GOMS measurements for comparing interfaces for a given task - it quantified how much slower mousing is than keystrokes; say, 0.2 seconds per keyboard character, vs. 1.1 seconds to point to something onscreen (I don't mention the time for switching from keys to pointer; the book doesn't mention mouse-clicking time as a separate action). This is one of the weak points of the Mac GUI and why I like Launchbar.

The best part of GOMS was not measuring the time, but taking the breakdown of thoughts and actions and distilling the information content of the task; and then comparing that to the information content of the intended task, to get an efficiency measure for the UI. Clearly this chapter only brushed the surface of nailing that down, but I really like the idea.

Other stuff may be profound insights into human-machine interaction, or carefully thought out responses to tiny but unhealed irritations. (Or some Ozymandias complex: the authors' ancient Canon Cat system sounds like a well-reasoned beginner's system of the old day, which neither I nor the household sysadmin have ever heard of, so... sank without trace, eh?) E.g.: cables should not have gendered ends; modes are an insult to human cognitive habits; dialog boxes with a message and a single button are stupid.

ISBN: 0-201-37937-6

September 10, 2003

Derailed, Joseph Vranich

A summary of how badly Amtrak has failed the interests of passenger rail; some plausible reasons why; and a slightly outdated argument for its piecemeal privatization. Vranich has worked for Amtrak, likes trains generally, is a high-speed-train proponent.

Amtrak hasn't worked for anyone, doesn't like its customers, and is a proponent of redefining 'high speed trains' to get Amtrak more funding. I summarize, but even though I really like riding trains, riding Amtrak hasn't given me reason to distrust Vranich's tables of damning data.

Vranich's proposed solution is all about privatization, and looks a little scruffier now than it did in 1997 when this was published. As he wrote, Japan's railways had had wildly profitable privatizations in the '80s but were suffering as Japan's depression took hold; likewise for some examples about airline profitability as private ventures - which are a bit less convincing after the post-boom's airline closings, national airline subsidies, bailouts. Also, Britain's privatized rail isn't a gonfalon of glory for the process. So I would worry that the very good results reported during the economic booms depended on the booms.

A much more interesting argument, which Vranich adumbrates but does not, I think, ever say, is that train travel is now valuable because of cities. (He's so Northeast-Sprawl-centric that he may think it goes without saying. Even there, surely there's been some change in the popularity of train lines as the urban centers they were built with decay and regrow?) The death and tortured sort-of strangled-by-Amtrak-and-highway-authorities rebirth of rail in the States lines up very well with the death and rebirth of our cities.

The romantic view, and Amtrak in some unhealthy combination of romance, dog-in-the-manger, and Congressional pork, think of 'real' trains as long-distance trains. Japan and Europe have their glorious high-speed trains, which can compete with air travel. At, oh, an hour of plane flight, merely fast trains are competitive. (With longer security checkthroughs on planes, trains get another little edge.) But what makes a medium-distance train trip competitive with air between Seattle and either Portland or Vancouver, BC is not the shorter lines, or the roomier seating, but that I live in the city in Seattle - and am usually visiting the city itself at either end - and the trains pick me up and drop me off where I want to be. The airports are all to heck and gone; Portland's is convenient because they -- built a train.

Train travel also depends on the trains being even vaguely on time: Vranich's book explains that the long-haul train that goes all the way to California is under Amtrak's control, which is why it's almost-but-not-quite-dependably late; the BC-Seattle-Portland one is as much as possible a state endeavor, and is much nicer and more reliable, except when the long-hauler comes through and bollixes it up.

When the cities are really both ends of most travel, e.g. BostonNewYorkPhiladelphia, also increasing parts of California, commuter rail comes into its own, and obviously nothing carries as many people - thinking about London and New York reminds one that the subway and the elevator were equally needed to achieve those densities. There's something of a balance between the annoying non-privacy on the train, and the ability to do something other than drive. I like transit because I can't think about anything deeply while driving, not without becoming a total danger to myself, others, street trees. So driving is lost time, where the bus and walking aren't. The lagniappe that may finally get lots of people onto commuter rail is, as Brad DeLong remarked, WiFi access.

The routing problems are still hard, where two systems have to share rails or switchpoints. One of the oddities of Britain's privatization, it seemed to me, was to break the system into regional carriers - and then claim they were supposed to compete with each other, as though a trip from City A to City B could substitute for a trip between other cities. As with air travel, the interesting specialties are more likely to be between really different kinds of travel; private varnish scenic cruises, executive express commuter trains, seasonal car-carrying trains to and from snowy regions. All of these are likely to share some tracks with each other and with the freight trains.

Any train-ignorant computer nerd at this point is thinking, "Okay, packet switching protocol, collision algorithms - I guess we need collision avoidance algorithms - Shannon, innit? Model me something with competing trains over common lines, and tell me how to isolate the variables they're really bidding for - speed, reliability, ability to run really long trains. Cool problem." The freight companies have clearly solved some of it w.r.t. covering repsonsibility and costs for the tracks themselves - as the brownout over the Northeast showed this summer, that can be a hard problem in deregulating.

Nothing so specific in Vranich's book. I must go look.

ISBN: 0-312-17182-X

September 04, 2003

The Difference Engine, Doron Swade

Subtitle: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer

The subtitle is subtly wrong. It should be "Quests", plural; Babbage's own, and much later that of Swade and his colleagues at the Science Museum in London to build a working model from Babbage's surviving plans. In both cases, we get as much detail about the search for funding as about the technical challenge. All right, this is important to the history of science: how things get done, how other things are smothered. One Fowler, just after Babbage, came up with a plausible calculator design that wasn't as comprehensive but was much more buildable, probably got no funds because Babbage had poisoned the well.

Nor were Babbage's Engines relevant to the later development of computing, according to Swade himself. The 1991 machine wasn't a reconstruction of a lost piece of the past, it was a reconstruction of a piece of an unlikely and expensive alternative past. But computer-related money was flowing in the 1990s, and there was no little amount of British pride involved, and the thing is lovely in all its precision-machined gleaming parts.

Still, I'd have liked more detail about the parts, more annotated line-drawings of how they fit together, more tables or equations expressing what each stage in the physical machine did. Flip-book illustrations in the corners, for that matter; there was a video of the innards of an Engine at the Museum, a few years ago while the exhibition was still above the fold; not on the website now.

ISBN: 0-670-91020-1

August 11, 2003

Green Plastics, E. S. Stevens

Subtitle: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradable Plastics

Well beyond an introduction - "Alice--Mutton: Mutton--Alice."
- practically a trip to meet the parents. The first few chapters, rehearsing the benefits and costs of petroleum-based plastics, are a little dry, but they leaf out into a discussion with light chemistry (there are diagrams of molecules) of popular plastics and important processes (oxidation, hydrolysis). Once we have reviewed the virtues plastics have and those they lack, we are introduced to various biopolymers in their chemical schema. Later we get a history of early plastics, many of which were bioplastics. (These chapters have charming pictures, including one of a 1941 Ford made with soybean-plastic body panels.)

Then speculation on the economic prospects of bioplastic production, and research programs to speed their profitability.

Finally, recipes! Kitchen chemistry is apparently enough to allow experimental production (the safety warnings are, pretty much, Don't scald yourself with the boiling water; and Don't eat it.) One of the main possible ingredients is glycerol, or glycerin, which is a byproduct of diesel made from fryer oil. There must be a virtuous circle here.

The first recipes are for photo 'glass', buttons, doodads; but we rapidly get to a more practical biodegradable root wrap, for transplanting; and instructions for building a simple test of tensile strength. All sorts of practical idealism; the world may change, and here's how to start.

ISBN: 0-691-04967-X

Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough, Michael Braungart

Subtitle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Two good things. One, the argument that recycling and melioration are not sufficient cures for toxic processes; we should make things so that at the end of their usefulness they are raw materials as good as the ones they were made from. (Many examples from biology, mostly poetic. When a brief for reuse of waste goes on about cherryblossoms and doesn't mention horseshit, they've drifted from Nature's reality.) The second, the physical book itself, made of a plastic claimed to be recyclable as a polymer of equal quality. The 'paper' is smooth and heavy and the printing clear; it purports
to be waterproof, but my copy had smudged a bit. I would have experimented, but it belongs to the library. I couldn't find instructions on how to recycle it. (It isn't more recyclable than any other polypro yet. Actually, the waterproof book was developed to publish erotica for the bath; just right for popularizing a new technology.)

The bulk of the text is examples of good or bad design, with sub-principles; for instance that there are technical nutrients (e.g., cadmium) and biological nutrients (e.g., starch) and that products made with only technological, or only biological, nutrients, will be easier to reprocess. I would like to have seen more data on successful redesign and reuse. This team seems to mostly have worked on building redesigns, many of them plausibly productive and embracing. The narration is a bit boastful, certainly unspecific about the successes of their projects vs. those of the "conventional" ecological design they badmouth. I think their scorn of dour, self-denying, pro-efficiency environmentalism is too much based on a strawman. For one thing, 'efficiency' the joyless blight is more a Gantt and Taylor creed than a Lovins and Waters one.

So it's okay as an introduction to the idea that we could produce more stuff with less harm if we planned in advance to do so. It won't be new to anyone who's heard of sustainable hedonism already, and it seems thin and timid after any book on permaculture. For techies, it has the signal flaw of providing no hook at all for do-it-yourself projects. On the other hand, it has smoothed away everything not perfectly conventional in Yuppie or BoBo success, so maybe it will carry the ideas to people otherwise immune to them.

ISBN: 0-86547-587-3

May 09, 2003

The Unix Haters' Handbook, Simson Garfinkel, Daniel Weise, and Steven Strassmann, eds.

Plenty of good fulminating about places where UNIX is unfriendly in ways either
  • easily fixable, showing how careless its advocates are, or
  • completely unfixable due to careless development.

It added a fillip that, while I was reading this, the house UNIX expert wreaked a

rm  *
on himself. As the book suggests,
Some Unix victims turn this filename-as-switch bug into a “feature” by keeping a file named “-i” in their directories. Type “rm *” and the shell will expand this to “rm -i filenamelist” which will, presumably, ask for confirmation before deleting each file. Not a bad solution, that, as long as you don’t mind putting a file named “-i” in every directory. Perhaps we should modify the mkdir command so that the “-i” file gets created automatically. Then we could modify the ls command not to show it.
The pleasure of these criticisms is their UNIX-guru care; they're very specific about what the Better Way would be. I will be surprised if their prescriptions are possible, especially over forty years of development and use, but it would always be nice to see something better.

My mild schadenfreude about the rm error was repaid when something in the tree of user-friendly USB devices hanging off OS X ate my entire original review, slowly, so I could watch. (In hindsight, I should have pulled the whole USB chain. I am told often by lordly-patient Macheads that it 'all just works' and you can disconnect devices as you finish with them. Only, not a week ago, I disconnected a FireWire drive with insufficient etiquette. I might say that convincing users they should always go in caution is more honest than lulling them into hanging themselves. However, no permanent harm came from my recklessness, so maybe OS X is stout enough to carry off its vanity.)


January 20, 2003

The Last Lone Inventor, Evan I. Schwartz

In 1928 one John Logie Baird got a human eyeball to use as part of his experimental television scanner. Apparently it worked when the eye was fresh, but failed by the second day. First thought: City of Lost Children. Second thought: why assume that the eye needed to be human?

Most of this is a morality tale about the end of private invention, and the invention of television propaganda. Philo T. Farnsworth, the actual¹ inventor of television, was hobbled at every turn by RCA and its self-aggrandizing director Sarnoff. Sarnoff told many tales about his importance that weren't true, but had the broadcasting stations when the dust settled, after which it was his tales that were heard. Sarnoff managed this with FUD and lawsuits and RCA money; RCA stock made heaps of money for private investors in the 1920s, after RCA was created by government fiat and IP-arrogation in wartime. RCA, like other big companies at the time, was developing the process of work-for-hire invention.

That is to say, the invention of television shares its themes with plenty of other battles for control of ideas, from Disney vs. Eldred to open-source vs. Microsoft to Carlyle vs. Marx.

Farnsworth learned invention mostly from Hugo Gernsback magazines and from the machinery on an Idaho farm, and was backed in various ways by plenty of the people he met, who were soon convinced that he might indeed be really on to something. (Machinery that a kid can fix is a great accelerator of technology. I worry about injection-molded parts driven by screen-printed circuitboards: they don't take minor tinkering well. When the molders and printers are common, bliss will it be to be alive.) His life should have been a boring had-an-idea-built-it-throve story, like Mauve; but RCA thwarted it.

The saddest thing wasn't even that Farnsworth got so little of the money despite being so far in advance of other inventors. The saddest thing was that he believed television would lead to truth and mutual understanding, and then to peace: but the first public broadcast he ever saw was Sarnoff's PR coup claiming television for RCA.

¹See comment for another inventor. Either way, RCA is out.

So wrote clew.

November 07, 2002

Machines Out of Control

Flesh and Machines, Rodney A. Brooks
Out Of Control, Kevin Kelly

Kelly wanders enthusiastically over a wide landscape of cool techno-bio projects in the Wired-typical ecstasy over scary change that will likely do some people a lot of good. I find it easy to grant that most of the projects he describes might do a lot of people a lot of good, but the bland acceptance of the risks puts me off. However, it's no worse than the magazine, and it has plain old legible typography and an extensive bibliography. Brooks wrote the journal article Fast, Cheap and Out of Control from which Kelly gets his title. Flesh and Machines is principally about his research developing robots and using their interaction with the physical world to drive their behavior almost directly. His specific discussion of how very simple states in each of six legs of a robot can produce successful walking is delightful. From this he derives the subsumption architecture, building complex behavior out of unchanged elements of simpler behavior (instead of overlapping small programs into a big program ), and a belief as much philosophical and practical that intelligence requires embodied existence. The book ends with understandable pseudocode for one of his early robots.

There are huge social implications in Brooks' discussions of his work, though. He and his students have already had practical results, ranging from the Sojourner mission to Mars to emotion-aping toys aimed at the mass market. He expects more, from the autonomous exploration of the solar system to autonomous cheap housecleaning robots to widespread international labor markets using telepresence to avoid immigration. His imagined housecleaning robots would make subsumption architecture obvious; each of them deeply stupid and nearly random in its motion, in a range of sizes none very big, and reliably keeping a house clean by their interactions. On the other hand, those haven't been built yet, and his description of trying to use robotic lawn mowers makes rabbits seem safer, simpler, cheaper, and more usefully controlled.

One of the oddites in Brooks' book is in guessing what his attitude towards humans is; I was somewhat taken aback by a comment, early on, that he yearned to see Hal exist even though that computer went mad and murderous. He also describes human behavior as automatic in a way that I associate with politics that consider human happiness irrelevant. I suspect this of being a subtle joke, though; late in the book, after several anecdotes of people who had programmed emotion-imitations reacting to their robot with (human and therefore presumably) real emotions, he branches into a discussion of the philosophical arguments about whether "real life" could ever exist in a machine. He summarizes most of the arguments against as versions of There Must Be Some Special Stuff In Us Because We're Special, descendants of vitalism, and himself strongly states that he thinks of people as machines. However, he also points out that although he believes his children to be fundamentally machines, he loves them dearly and not for their biochemistry; he wants robots to be treated well when they can feel well or ill, even though we may have made them differently than our born children are made. He also has some practical arguments about why autonomous robots are not likely to take over the world, and an interesting discussion of Asimov's Three Rules.

After deflating Searle and other robot-pessimists, he deflates the extropian freeze-me-for-later techno-eschatologists, citing a history of such predictions that put the date just about when the predictor would turn 70. The belief that we live in exactly the right Special Time is about as irrational as the belief that we contain exactly the right Special Stuff, he implies.

I'm not convinced that telepresence work - for instance, staffing Japanese hospitals over phone lines from the Philippines - would actually be a boon for the poor workers. Much depends on the relative value of autonomy and physical safety; while sewing machines are inherently less dangerous than unmechanized farm labor, working in a sweatshop can be much more dangerous than working one's own farm. Also, if the rich never meet their poor help, there's less likelihood that the poor will be paid enough for the infrastructure the prevents infectious diseases.

So wrote clew.

October 24, 2002

Mathematics Of The Incas, Ascher&Ascher

Glorious; breaks down what quipus possibly mean by looking at the mathematical relations between their elements as well as what little we know about their use in Inca society. You will want paper and pencil to enjoy this book properly, or maybe a lot of string, because it solidifies its explanations not just with detailed examples but with exercises.

By security through obscurity, this is probably better secure data-storage than a PDA or notebook; if 1970's fringe remains fashionable you could even hide it in plain sight. Budgeting? Bets? Hierarchal relationships? Remember what you need to remember and let the past live.

So wrote clew.

September 02, 2002

My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950, Thomas C. Jepsen

The beginning of the story is that telegraphy was so new and strange that women worked in it, independently, when women could work outside the house at little else. The end of the story is that telegraphy was old tech eventually, and by then women had been resigned to repetitive jobs and smaller wages, though not without a good fight.

Jepsen is wonderfully thorough in detail in discussions of women telegraphers and: women's wages generally; the Civil War; colnizing the West; culture-shock moralizing in all directions; the centralization of the new industry; deskilling telegraphic jobs; international comparisons; and reflections in popular culture. More, probably, but I remember those. The writing is slightly cut-and-paste repetitive, a though it had been several magazine articles.

The list of high- and low-culture 'telegraph' works is great. Strauss wrote a "Telegramme" waltz! (Opus 318.) W.D. Griffith made The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and her Trust. The Hazards of Helen filmed 119 episodes between 1914 an 1917; Fritz Lang made Western Union; actually, that sounds awful, although Jeppson says it "partially redeems itself through its depiction of authentic telegraph equipment". This seems unimportant now, when there's a more-or-less-officially-fantasy genre for every grade of wish-fulfillment violence, technical aptitude, sexuality, and gender. Imagining it after reading a Charlotte Yonge novel is hard, though. Women's fiction in the nineteenth century mostly offered a choice between suffering in moral silence until the Virtuous Man rescued you, or suffering in moral silence until you died of it and someone felt remorse. Sometimes a woman went Bad, which is to say sexual, not larcenous, and later died, possibly of remorse, but the idea of leaving town on the next train for a job has to have been a big old breath of fresh air. (Am I wrong? Send me counterexamples.)

So wrote clew.

August 16, 2002

How to Lie With Maps, Mark Monmonier

Oddly, this is mostly written as instructions on how to lie with maps, with only occasional sections on how to tell if a map is being used to lie to you. Anyone reasonably alert can convert one tack to the other, but it's a funny thing to read. The comparison of cartographic projections is interesting but not novel: because familiar, it's probably a good introduction with his point that all maps lie, in that they all have to suppress something. (If they didn't, they'd be exact copies of the territory.) The chapter "Data Maps: Making Nonsense of the Census" was more useful because the number-shuffling it takes on is so much the high-priest incantation of our days. "Data Maps" picks a simple example (data on televisions per household in twenty-eight adjacent areas) and shows the same data in a dozen subtly different ways. He doesn't try to teach enough statistics to explain what the different samples are showing about the data.
So wrote clew.

July 25, 2002

The Walls Around Us, David Owen

The best part of this was at the very beginning, describing the looming, encroaching fear you develop after you've bought a house - especially an old house - when it becomes obvious that it is actively falling apart, rotting, decaying, and constant effort on your part could only make this pause, no matter how gloss the paint. You'd think any mind that lives in a mortal body would be used to this. Maybe it's displacement. The rest of it is like background articles from Fine Homebuilder with a bit more about Owen's house and a bit more background research. He did visit a plant that makes paint for nuclear power plants to find out why we don't all want to use it on our porches.
So wrote clew.

June 27, 2002

Tools of the Trade, Jeff Taylor

There's a glossy coffee-table shopping book of woodworking tools out; this isn't it. It has nice pictures of mostly old tools, but the essays are the body of the book. It suffers a little from a too-constant tone, as volumes of essays often do, but read separately they're charming: mostly elegies for the craft and time once condensed into woodworking hand-tools and hand-habits and rapidly lost to mass production, a fair amount about the author's family and building things with and for them, some cargo-cult shopping. Not much of the last, although it gets the pictures. If you read one essay, I recommend 'Framing Square'. It has a tidy little moral plot and a tantalizing view of the framing square as a calculating tool:
Given the diameter of a cogwheel and the pitch of its cogs, you can easily find the number of cogs with a steel square, or determine the length of a hoop around a wooden tank. Got any pulleys you would like to replace to make a shaft go faster or slower? A steel square is the answer to most calculating problems you'd encounter on a small farm in 1909.
So wrote clew.

May 29, 2002

Barbarians Led By Bill Gates: Microsoft from the Inside, Jennifer Edstrom & Martin Eller

I used to work at Microsoft, so Books About Microsoft are a popcorn pleasure. This one offers the pleasure of recognition; it's by, or half-by, or ghosted for, a programmer, and one who saw the whole thing as a more Mutt-and-Jeff success by semi-accident than an Organized Machiavellian Plot. I was a mere lowly cog and wouldn't have been let in on the OMP if there was one, but I sure didn't see much suggestive evidence.

Brainstem-level aggression, defending the franchise, yes, I remember that. Barbarians Led By Bill Gates is from the view of non-lowly cogs and suggests that that's all that was needed, given talented programmers and frequent mistakes by the opposition. I don't think one has to assume talented programmers, even, just programmers as good as the opposition's and mistakes less dire.

Since one of the authors was a programmer, and probably an excellent one, there is a clear assumption that the programmers were at the heart of it all: Heroic Midnight Sessions produce entire operating systems (well, nearly) that They Said Couldn't be Done, just in time to Confound IBM and Save the Company. These are my capitals. Edstrom & Eller are above capital letters, and also above the constant discussion of just how much money was or was going to be dependent on the keyboard heroics. This is quite tasteful and nearly unheard of in the genre of late-boom software-creation romances. (Bildungsroman? Compilungsroman!)

So wrote clew.