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September 29, 2006

Scientific Ages

The "Works and Days" a short, 800 line poem, was written by Hesiod, a Greek poet of the seventh, or eighth, century BC. Part of this work was an exhortation to his brother to stop being so lazy and start doing something useful with his life. It was also the Old Farmer's Almanac of its time, offering useful bits of information. Living was apparently rough during Hesiod's time, and there was a general belief, echoed in Hesiod's poem, that civilization was in decline. In his poem, Hesiod listed the Five Ages of Man, his recounting of the historical decline of civilization.

• The Golden Age - A time of peace, harmony, and easy living.

• The Silver Age - Humans had a pleasant lifespan of a hundred years.

• The Bronze Age - Humans waged war with bronze swords and eventually exterminated themselves.

• The Heroic Age - The age of heros and the Trojan War.

• The Iron Age - The contemporaneous age of Hesiod, a world of many ills.

We supposedly still live in the Iron Age, but we now choose to name our ages by technology. In the last century, mankind has been through six of these ages.

Chemical - Fixation of nitrogen, polymers.

Nuclear - Nuclear Power

Space - Communications satellites, the moon landings, and the Space Shuttle.

Information - Ubiquitous computing

Biotechnology - Polymerase chain reaction and new drugs.


What's next? My bet is on an age of Autonomous Machines (a.k.a., robots) and Artificial Intelligence.


1. Hesiod: Works And Days (translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914).
2. Works And Days (translated by Evelyn-White)

September 28, 2006

Fleeting Memory

Computers today have a lot of memory. Microsoft's forthcoming Vista operating system needs at least 512 megabyte to operate, but would really like 1 gigabyte. Memory in most computers is DRAM, dynamic random access memory, which was invented at IBM in the mid-sixties. Data in DRAM is stored as an electric charge in a very small capacitor, but the charge leaks away after a time, so DRAM data must be periodically read and re-written, a process called refresh. As memory chips get more dense, these capacitors become smaller, don't hold as much charge, and are susceptible to soft errors; that is, errors that happen even in perfectly manufactured chips.

One cause of soft errors is cosmic rays. The universe is not a benign environment, and there is a background of energetic particles (about 87% protons, 12% alpha particles, and 1% heavy nuclei) that strike the earth and are generally absorbed by the atmosphere. However, some of these reach the earth, and if they strike a DRAM chip they can form millions of electron-hole pairs that can cause a transient memory error. In the late 1990s, IBM published results of an extensive multi-decade study on these errors. They ran continuous memory tests on mountain tops, where you'll find more cosmic rays, and caves, where you'll find less. They found that you'll get one soft error per month per 256 Mbytes of memory, so a typical 1 GB system will get one soft error each week, which might result in a spreadsheet error, or a system crash.

Perhaps, for safety's sake, you've decided to do all your Excel spreadsheets in a cave. Unfortunately, cosmic rays are not the only source of soft errors. Chip packaging materials contain trace amounts of radioactive materials that produce alpha particles that cause soft errors. Most memory chips are packaged in plastic, but certain high reliability chips are packaged in ceramic carriers. The alpha flux (particles per cm2 per hour) is only 0.1 for plastic packaging materials, but it can be as high as 3 for the glasses used to seal ceramic chip carriers.

Soft errors are mitigated by changing device architecture, and by software error correcting codes. Error correcting codes are most efficient on single bit errors, so memory architectures that seperate the bits of data words in space are preferred. A cosmic ray may change one bit in a data word, something easily detected and corrected, but only that bit, since the other bits are elsewhere.

How far will manufacturers go to study soft memory errors? I've already mentioned the IBM multi-decade study. Data from accelerated testing studies using laboratory radiation sources have not correlated well with actual environmental testing, so mountain tops are still a preferred testing location. STMicroelectronics and the Laboratory for Materials and Microelectronics of Provence, France, have established a soft error testing facility at 2,552 meters (8372 feet) in the French Alps. So far, the lab has detected eleven soft errors in its first month of testing a small batch of chips. They say that, statistically, this corresponds to a soft error rate of 0.6 per million hours/per MBit for the particular devices tested.

1. IBM moves to protect DRAM from cosmic invaders (Anthony Cataldo)
2. Soft Errors from Alpha Particles
3. Alpine lab enters rarified air of soft-error test (Junko Yoshida)

September 27, 2006

US Scientific Competitiveness

I just finished reading the current issue of the IEEE Sensors Journal (Vol. 6, no. 5, October 2006). Of course, what I mean by "read" is that I read the titles of the articles and bookmarked the two I will read later, in my "free time." Only 28.6% (12 out of 42) of the articles in that issue originated in US research laboratories. Also in my mailbox was the IEEE Transactions on Instrumentation and Measurement (Vol. 55, no. 5, October 2006). The statistics for this were even worse, with only 16.4% (9 out of 55) of the articles originating in US research laboratories. More menacing than these numbers is the trend in US scientific publication. The US share of published scientific and engineering papers was 38% in 1988, but only 31% in 2001. The number of papers published by Western European authors surpassed those of US authors in the mid-1990s. My own publication history mirrors this trend. I published 46 technical papers from 1974-1995, but since then I have only published a few tutorial articles in the popular press.

A more important metric than the number of articles published is the number of citations. Obviously, good research, and research at the leading-edge, is cited more often. In 1992, U.S. authors had 52 percent of the citations, but these dropped to only 44 percent in 2001. There has been essentially no growth in government funding of basic research in the US in the last thirty years, and the funding level as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product has actually declined. The decline in US technology is summarized in a report, "The Knowledge Economy: is the United States Losing its Competitive Edge? ," published in February 16, 2005, by the The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, an association of business and academic organizations [1].

Less than 6% of college degrees conferred in the US are in science and engineering. It's 11% for Japan and Korea. Seventy-eight percent of Ph.D. degrees in science and engineering were awarded ouside the US in 2001. There are not enough new graduates to replace the number of scientists and engineers who will retire in the next decade. More than half of US scientists and engineers are forty, or older.

Is any of this important? For those of you focused more on money than publications, the US share of high technology exports has been in a decline for the last twenty years. In fact, the U.S. share fell from 31 percent to 18 percent in the period 1980-2001. Sending a handful of high school teachers to space camp will not reverse this trend.

1. Members of The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation are Agilent Technologies, ASTRA, American Chemical Society, American Electronics Association, American Mathematical Society, American Physical Society, Association of American Universities, Computing Research Association, Computing Technology Industry Association, Computing Systems Policy Project,Council on Competitiveness, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent, Materials Research Society, Microsoft, National Association of Manufacturers, NASULGC, The Science Coalition, Semiconductor Industry Association, Southeastern Universities Research Association, and Texas Instruments

September 26, 2006

Cheap as Dirt

In mankind's effort to change the earth into a perfect sphere, we've been digging dirt from the high places, and filling in the low places. The adage, "Cheap as dirt," is usually accurate, since people from the high spots need to put their dirt somewhere, and they usually offer it free to people in the low spots. Gardeners, however, pay up to a dollar a pound for potting soil, or $3.50 a pound for special blends for tropical plants.

How does the price of dirt compare to the price of air? At a recent visit to a local service station, I paused to check my automobile's tire inflation and top-up the tire pressure. The station offers free air to customers, but unless the cashier activates the secret switch for you, the air pump operates as a vending machine that gives you three minutes of air for $0.75. I noticed that the inflation rate from this pump was about 20 PSI/minute. How much does the air cost per pound? Let's calculate.

My tires are Continental P215/60R16. For the auto buffs among you (not me, so I got this from Wikipedia) this number tells you a lot about the tire.

• P - Passenger vehicle
• 215 - Width of the tire is 215 mm at the widest point (8.5-inch)
• 60 - Indicates that the height of the side-wall of the tire is 60% of the width (5.1-inch)
• R - Radial tire.
• 16 - 16 inch diameter wheels

A visit to some web sites got me the additional fact that the thread depth of the tires was 10/32-inch. Estimating that the thickness of the tire at the thread must be about an inch, the internal diameter of the tire is about 16 + 2(4.1) = 24.2 inch. We can then calculate the volume of the tire as

w[(π)(r2)2 - (π)(r1)2] = 2200 cubic inches

Where w is the width, r2 is the radius of the internal tire space, and r1 is the radius of the hub. This is 36 liters, or 0.036 cubic meter. The density of air is about 1.2 kg/m3, so the tire contains 43.2 grams of air under atmospheric conditions (14.7 psi). An additional 20 PSI from the pump would be equivalent to 59 grams. Converting from the price gives $1.92 per pound. Not bad at all, considering that the price of ink jet printer ink verges on $10,000 per gallon, or more than a $1,000 per pound!

1. A very informative article about tires on Wilipedia.

September 25, 2006

Atomic Alarm Clock

The study of turbulence in fluids has always been... turbulent. There has been some progress. The Reynolds' number, introduced in 1883, is probably the greatest success, since it facilitates wind tunnel measurements on scale models of components, such as wings. The scale models simulate the actual item to great precision when the velocity is adjusted so that the Reynolds' numbers are the same, a concept called "dynamic similitude." The Navier-Stokes equations describe fluid flow, but these are differential equations that allow solutions for only simple cases of flow. Theodore von Karman, a founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its Director from 1938 - 1944, is among the many scientists who have studied turbulence.

Although turbulence arises in many physical systems, the analysis of turbulence has progressed more slowly than other areas of physics. In a previous post I mentioned the Millenium Prizes offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute for progress in especially difficult mathematics problems. As part of the Millenium Prizes, the Clay Institute has offered a million dollar prize for "substantial progress toward a mathematical theory which will unlock the secrets hidden in the Navier-Stokes equations."

A recent article in Nature by physicists at The University of Manchester, Delft University of Technology, and the Philipps-Universität Marburg, describes their experiments and modeling of turbulence in narrow tubes. Their experiments represent an ideal case of flow within a smooth-walled tube. Laminar flow persists to very high flow rates, but a gentle "kick" sets the flow into turbulence. It has always been assumed that a turbulent flow will never settle back into a non-turbulent state, no matter how long you wait. Their work indicates that if you wait long enough, the flow will settle down, but it may take millions of years!

In my mind, there seems to be a connection between these turbulence experiments and radioactive decay. The half-life gives the time at which half of the nucleii of a radioactive element will decay; but you can't tell which half will decay, and which will be unchanged. The unanswered question is why some nucleii decay right away, and some after millions of years. Each nucleus seems to have an internal clock that signals that its time is up, and this clock somehow keeps accurate time over thousands, or millions, of years.

1. Björn Hof, Jerry Westerweel, Tobias M. Schneider and Bruno Eckhardt, "Finite lifetime of turbulence in shear flows," Nature 443, 59-62(7 September 2006).

September 22, 2006

Small Values of Two

Small Values of Two

Elementary Algebra is taught in high school, and aside from solving simultaneous equations in three unknowns, most of it is easy. There is a higher form of Algebra, Abstract Algebra, that is typically studied only by mathematicians, but you only need Elementary Algebra to prove that 1 = 2, as follows:

• Let a=b.
• Then a2 = ab,
• a2 + a2 = a2 + ab,
• 2 a2 = a2 + ab,
• 2 a2 - 2 ab = a2 + ab - 2 ab,
• and 2 a2 - 2 ab = a2 - ab.
• This can be written as 2 (a2 - a b) = 1 (a2 - a b),
• and cancelling the (a2 - ab) from both sides gives 1=2.

So, what went wrong? The last operation is the culprit. Symbolically, everything looks fine, until you realize that since we set a = b in the first step, we're dividing by zero in the last step. Division by zero is never allowed. Essentially, all we've proved is that any number multiplied by zero is zero. Einstein admitted that he fell into this trap on many occasions, but his equations made it difficult to find where division by zero occurred.

There is a story told about a theoretical physicist who solved a complicated problem and found that a certain constant should be two. He prepared a paper for publication, but in the meantime, experiments were done that showed the actual value to be one. At that point, he added a phrase at the end of his paper, "... for small values of two."

1=2: A Proof using Beginning Algebra.

September 21, 2006

Hairy Smoking Golf Ball

When I was a student in the early seventies, all computing was done on mainframe computers. These were colloquially known as "Big Iron," since these machines were huge, filling an entire room. One speaker at a conference I attended at that time said that computers in the future would resemble hairy, smoking, golf balls. The reasons were obvious.

• Golf Ball - Since the speed of light is finite, a fast computer must be contained in a small volume. Light (and electricity) travels at about a foot per nanosecond.

• Hairy - A computer needs to communicate with the outside world. For a 64-bit computer, this means at least sixty-four wires just for data. Then there are the memory address lines, power supply connections, and various digital clock signals.

• Smoking - In the early seventies, the maximum power dissipation for a silicon circuit was about two watts per square inch. An advanced processor still needs to fit into a square inch or less of area, but it requires a lot more circuitry. Also, circuitry operating at higher speed has always translated into more heat dissipation.

We're stuck with the golf ball size, but serial photonic interconnection may trim the hair. Transistors today dissipate less heat than in the 70's, but the latest computer chips from Intel are still close to hairy, smoking, golf balls. The Pentium D 840 has a chip area of 206mm2. It operates at 3200MHz, dissipates 130 watts, and has 775 external connections. Advanced thermal management techniques are capable of keeping the chip temperature to about 70ºC, so no smoke yet.

1. OK, so what is a hairy smoking golfball?.

September 20, 2006

Captcha got your Mouse?

The MacArthur Fellows Program annually awards about 20 - 40 US residents or citizens with a huge monetary award, currently a half million dollars given over a five year period. The award, often called a "Genius Grant," is intended to allow especially creative individuals some free time to explore their intellectual space. Many notable physicists have received this award. Starting in reverse alphabetical order, we have George Zweig, Frank Wilczek (a Nobel Prize winner), and others too numerous to list. This program was initiated in 1981, and there have been more than 700 of these awards to date. One of this year's recipients is Luis von Ahn, a Computer Science Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-inventor of the captcha. The award was presaged by the fact that he graduated first in his class of 1,600 at Duke University.

For the uninitiated, a captcha is an image of several distorted letters and numbers on an irregular background. Captchas are easily read by humans, but nearly impossible for computers to decode. They are often used to verify that a visitor to a web site is actually a human, and not a computer designed to troll the internet to post ads on blogs and message boards. Professor von Ahn co-invented captchas while still a graduate student. The MacArthur Program credits him with integrating human intelligence with the artificial intelligence of computers.

Just put on the internet is another of von Ahn's human intelligence inventions, the "ESP Game," a deceptively simple computer technology licensed by Google for its Google Image Labeler. Google's image database is huge, but its present method of indexing images to words is a crude technique that looks at words in the general vicinity of an image on a web page. The Google Image Labeler relies on the fact that humans enjoy games, and they will work towards non-remunerative prizes, like a pat on the back. A computer user who enters this Google web site is randomly paired with another user, and they are both presented with the same image. They repeatedly type descriptive words into a box, and when they have each typed the same word for an image, Google is fairly certain that it's a good description. Google has a ready supply of cheap indexers, since some people will "play" for hours, just to get a high ranking on the Image Labeler Web site. It is estimated that the initial indexing task will take only two months if there are 5,000 players on line at all times, a very small number by internet standards.

Captchas haven't stopped all the internet spam robots. Some advanced image processing techniques have compromised the simpler captchas. Then there are the web sites that offer special access to viewers who solve a captcha - a captcha from a targeted web site.

1. CMU computer science professor wins $500,000 genius award.
2. Google Takes On ESP Game, But Needs Some Marketing Help.

September 19, 2006

Gaming the Patent System

Nathan Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, is a physicist and a nerd's nerd. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from UCLA, and a Ph.D. from Princeton. He worked as a post-doc on quantum gravity for Stephen Hawking, and then joined a startup company that was bought by Microsoft in 1986. Myhrvold is listed as an inventor on eighteen patents, and he reportedly has more than a hundred pending patents. Myhrvold left Microsoft to become co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, Bellevue, Washington.

Knowing his background and speculating on the name of his company, you would expect some exciting technology from him in the near future. Wrong! Intellectual Ventures is a patent holding company, and some have labeled Myhrvold a patent troll. A patent troll is someone who patents to exact royalties from infringers, but does not manufacture items or offer services based on those same patents. Myhrvold has bought the rights to an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 patents, an order of magnitude greater than the portfolios of some of the more infamous patent trolls.

Intellectual Ventures doesn't just buy patents. It is also a patent mill. Its internal staff of scientists and engineers are purportedly churning out patents in the areas of computer software and hardware, consumer electronics, biotechnology, and medical devices. An article in Business Week further describes "invention sessions" in which a group of experts is brought in to brainstorm ideas, with patent attorneys fishing for anything they can file patents on. In all fairness to Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures, they have yet to bring anyone to court. Many claim that's because they have encouraged potential infringers to invest in the company with the threat of their being the first targets for lawsuits.

The U.S. Patent Office required a working model of an invention from 1790 to 1880. Re-establishing this requirement would go a long way towards trimming the excesses of the current patent process.

1. Who's afraid of Nathan Myhrvold? (CNN Article).
2. Inside Nathan Myhrvold's Mysterious New Idea Machine (Business Week Article).
3. Nathan Myhrvold's Bait And Switch Plan On Patent Hoarding (Techdirt.com).

September 18, 2006

A Series of Tubes

US Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was ridiculed extensively on Internet message boards this summer for a speech he gave that attempted to explain how the Internet works. He tried to explain channel capacity with the analogy that the Internet is "a series of tubes." One comment on the Steven's speech, in particular, seems to summarize a lay person's understanding of technology, "indeed, our senators conceive of the internet as a mysterious metaphysical entity." As if inspired by Steven's analogy, Nethercom, a San Diego startup has developed a method to send high speed signals through gas utility pipes. According to the American Gas Association, 62% of US households have a gas connection.

Data communications is big business, and every utility is trying to get a piece of the pie. Telephone companies were first, with dial-up connection, followed by cable television's offering of broadband Internet. The telephone companies responded with DSL, and they are now deploying optical fiber to provide the same services as cable television. Even the electrical utilities are experimenting with transmitting data signals on power lines, a technique called Broadband Over Power Line (BPL) that has significant opposition. The gas utility companies, envious, but powerless, thought they were the only one of the four utilities out of the ball game, until now.

The idea of putting data signals though pipes is not new. A pipe of the proper dimension can be an electromagnetic waveguide, an idea demonstrated by Oliver Lodge in 1894. Waveguides were subsequently developed at Bell Telephone Laboratories, leading to the WT4 Millimeter Waveguide System, a buried waveguide used in long distance telephony. Of course, common gas pipes are quite crude compared to perfectly dimensioned waveguides, and gas pipes will not transmit data signals very far using standard techniques. The technical innovation of Nethercomm is the use of ultrawideband signals. Ultrawideband is a relatively new radio technology, but it is now used in products such as WiFi wireless internet. Since the signals are contained in an underground pipe, the high power levels needed to ensure a low bit-error-rate will not cause interference. The power levels are still low enough to prevent ignition of a gas stream infiltrated by air.

Several years ago, Dan Stancil, a Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a past collaborator [2, 3], investigated a similar method [4]. This involved using existing HVAC ducts in buildings for wideband transmission.

1. Gas-line broadband a pipe dream? (USA Today article on Yahoo News).
2. S.D. Silliman, D.M. Gualtieri, and D.D. Stancil, Improvement of FMR Linewidth in Bi-Substituted Lutetium Iron Garnet Thin Films for the MSW-Optical-Mode Interaction, J. Appl. Phys. 73(10), 6460-6462 (1993).
3. M. Ramesh, D.M. Gualtieri, S.D. Silliman, J. Peruyero, and D.D. Stancil, Effect of Sodium Doping of Rare-Earth Iron Garnet Films on Magnetic and Magneto-Optic Properties, J. Appl. Phys. 70(10), 6289-6291 (1991).
4. D. D. Stancil, O. K. Tonguz, A. Xhafa, A. Cepni, P. Nikitin, and D. Brodtkorb High-speed Internet access via HVAC ducts: a new approach, IEEE Global Telecommunications Conference, November, 2001.

September 15, 2006

Everything but the Bleat

There's a saying in the poultry business that they try to sell all parts of the chicken - "everything but the cackle." This same idea is being applied to sheep as the source of an unlikely material for making paper - sheep droppings. Creative Paper Wales, a paper company in the UK, is making greeting cards and paper gift items from a product called Sheep Poo Paper. The company was awarded a £20,000 Millennium Award for "social entrepreneurship" from UnLtd for their novel use of this material.

The sheep droppings are collected, sterilised, washed, and then mixed with recycled paper. To keep the process environmentally-friendly, the wash water is collected to be used as fertiliser. The company Founders say they wanted to create a company that was uniquely Welsh. Wales is generally unsuitable for most agriculture because of the poor quality of the soil, so sheep farming is a principal industry. Lamb is a typical ingredient in Welsh cooking. Sheep Poo Paper utilizes a low-technology, environmentally-friendly manufacturing process, requiring minimal capital, and is insulated from foreign competition.

The next time your customer says your product is cr*p, you may be able to tell him that he's right.

1. Sheep poo paper scoops top award (BBC)
2. Website for Creative Paper Wales

September 14, 2006

Pancake Flipping with Bill Gates

Bill Gates is the Founder and Chairman of Microsoft, a computer company with about 70,000 employees and annual sales of more than $40 billion. For comparison, Honeywell is a $30 billion company with about 115,000 employees. It is not surprising that Bill was interested in computers from a young age. The private high school he attended had a DEC PDP-10 computer, and while still in high school he was paid by the vendor of the computer's operating system to hack the computer to find security flaws. He was also hired to write a payroll program in COBOL. Gates is reported to have scored 1590/1600 on his SATs, a score considered roughly equivalent to an IQ of 170 (Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen's SAT score was a perfect 1600). Gates entered Harvard University as a Computer Science and Pre-Law student in 1973, but he left before completing a degree to found Microsoft.

Few people know that Bill Gates was an author of one published computer science paper [2], on a computer algorithm for pancake flipping. The pancake flipping problem was introduced in 1975 in a column in the American Mathematical Monthly. Essentially, you have a random stack of pancakes of different sizes, and you want to sort the stack so that the largest pancake is on the bottom, and the smallest pancake is on the top. The trick is this - you can only do this by grabbing several pancakes from the top of the stack (it can be entire stack), flipping them over, and repeating this same procedure until the stack is sorted. This is an ideal problem for a computer, especially for large stacks. A common sorting algorithm will do the job for a stack of n pancakes in (2n - 3) flips or less, for n > 2. Gates and his coauthor published an algorithm that will always accomplish the sort in (5n + 5)/3 flips (it's left to the reader to convince himself that this is always less than (2n - 3) for n > 15). They also investigated a variation of the problem, the Burnt Pancake Problem, in which one side of each pancake is burnt and must be placed face-down in the stack.

1. Pancake Sorting, Science News Online, Vol. 170, No. 10 (Sept. 2, 2006).
2. Gates, W.H., and C.H. Papadimitriou, Bounds for sorting by prefix reversal, Discrete Mathematics, vol. 27, pp. 47-57 (1979).
3. Wikipedia article on pancake sorting.

September 13, 2006

The Philosopher's Tooth

The use of experiment as a test of theory is a recent innovation in science, going back only as far as Galileo. Galileo has been called the father of modern physics for being the first to do experiments that could be described by measurement and analyzed mathematically. He also realized that no measurement is perfect, and small deviations of experimental data from theoretical predictions could be ignored.

Galileo's concept of science was different from the Aristotelean model that persisted for the prior two millenia. Although Aristotle wrote many scientific books, such as his Physics and Meteorology, he believed in a top-down approach to science in which things behaved as they did for fundamental reasons that could be discerned by logic alone. Aristotle believed in the idea that objects have a Final Cause (telos), which is the reason why they should exist. No experiments are required to divine the truth, just logical reflection. For such reasons, he claimed that men have more teeth than women, since "the abundance of heat and blood... is more in men than in women." He never felt the need to count teeth, a very simple experiment; and since Aristotle said men have more teeth, no one else bothered to count for themselves. Likewise, Aristotle claimed that horses have 40 teeth, but they actually have 44.

All this leads to a an ancient parable about philosophers and horse's teeth.

In the year of our Lord 1432, there arose a grievous quarrel among the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For thirteen days the disputation raged without ceasing. All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out, and wonderful and ponderous erudition such as was never before heard of in this region was made manifest. At the beginning of the fourteenth day, a youthful friar of goodly bearing asked his learned superiors for permission to add a word, and straightway, to the wonderment of the disputants, whose deep wisdom he sore vexed, he beseeched them to unbend in a manner coarse and unheard-of and to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings. At this, their dignity being grievously hurt, they waxed exceeding wroth; and, joining in a mighty uproar, they flew upon him and smote him, hip and thigh, and cast him out forthwith. For, said they, surely Satan hath tempted this bold neophyte to declare unholy and unheard-of ways of finding truth, contrary to all the teachings of the fathers. After many days more of grievous strife, the dove of peace sat on the assembly, and they as one man declaring the problem to be an everlasting mystery because of a grievous dearth of historical and theological evidence thereof, so ordered the same writ down.

This parable is usually attributed to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), but its true source is a mystery. Says one historian, "While Bacon does make observations on the heat of horse dung, he is silent on the topic of horse's teeth."

1. String Theory, the darling of today's theoretical physicists, appears to me to be a reversion to Aristotelean science.

September 12, 2006

What's Your Frequency?

Morristown, New Jersey, is roughly mid-way between New York City and Philadelphia, so radio reception in automobiles is poor. However, with a large directional antenna on the roof of your home, you can select from quite a variety of FM radio stations. Unfortunately, one of my favorite stations, Sunny - 104.5, Philadelphia, recently changed format from Oldies to Hispanic. Now, we Baby Boomers need to find other entertainment.

Most people don't know what 104.5 means, although they know they needed to set their radio there to get Sunny - 104.5. Sunny - 104.5 transmitted at a frequency of 104.5 MHz.

Every day we use the radio spectrum for various purposes, but we don't really know where we are. Here's a quick list of common radio frequencies (all approximate). Note that this list is US centric, so your frequencies may vary.

• AM Radio 0.5 - 1.7 MHz
• Television (Ch. 2 - 6) 45 - 84 MHz
• FM Radio 88 - 108 MHz
• Television (Ch. 7-13) 175 - 212 MHz
• UHF Television (Ch. 14 - 69) 471 - 802 MHz
(Channel 37 (about 609 MHz) is allocated to radio astronomy)
• Cell Phones 825 -850 MHz
• Wireless (not cell) Phones 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz
• Global Positioning System (GPS) 1.227 and 1.575 GHz
• Microwave Ovens 2.45 GHz
• 802.11b, 802.11g WiFi Home Computer Wireless Networks 2.40 GHz
• 802.11a WiFi Home Computer Wireless Networks 5 GHz
• Police Speed Radar 10.6 GHz
• Satellite Television 12 GHz

In the US, there are a total of 4759 AM radio stations, and 13,748 FM Radio Stations. There are also 1,371 Commercial Television Stations and 381 Educational Television Stations. If you include translator/booster stations and low power UHF television stations, there are 27,556 total radio and television stations in the US (and still nothing to watch!)

1. You can find an image of my FM antenna here.
2. Broadcasting Station Statistics, Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
3. Frequency Allocation Chart.
4. Frequency Allocation List.

September 11, 2006


Today is the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; and the loss of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.

Morristown is very close to New York City. The tops of the World Trade Center were visible on my commute to work every day as I traveled west to east. For a week after the attack, a column of smoke persisted in that portion of the skyline.

Wikipedia [1] has a very thorough report on the September 11, 2001, attacks.

1. September 11, 2001, attacks (Wikipedia Entry).

September 08, 2006

World Wide Database

All of us search the internet almost daily using search engines such as Google. Internet search was used to good advantage in a software competition held during the European Conference on Artificial Intelligence at Riva del Garda, Italy. Programs competed against humans in solving crossword puzzles from sources such as the New York Times. In honor of the conference location, these puzzles were in both English and Italian.

One entrant, WebCrow, from the computing department at the University of Siena, Italy, did better than its human and computer opponents. WebCrow used internet search engines to search key words for clues. It was typically able to find target words by just looking at the small previews on the search engine results page. A word of the right length common to the search results was likely to be the target word. If the target word was not in the previews, WebCrow accessed entire web pages highlighted by the search engine for further analysis. Computer cognoscenti know that all this is easy to do in a language like Perl.

The WebCrow technique is an example of shallow knowledge. Computers don't understand what's on the web, but they can find how things are related. Other application of this sort are cluster analysis and analysis of social networks to thwart terrorism.

1. Crossword software thrashes human challengers, New Scientist (31 August 2006)

September 01, 2006

Holiday and Vacation

The old work horse is taking some vacation in combination with the Labor Day holiday.

The next new posting will be on September 8, 2006.

I trust that everyone at Honeywell will tend the hearth while I'm away.

Until then, here's a Google Image Search on the Joint Strike Fighter to keep you entertained.

Public Domain

Google, the web search powerhouse, has begun to offer free PDF downloads of books in the public domain at its Google Books web site. Previously, you could only read these books online. Using the Full view books search option, you can search through the Google Books web site for classics and older books that interest you, and download printable electronic copies. Most of these books are out-of-print and hard to find.

Google can also search copyrighted books, but you can't download these. However, small snippets of copyrighted books are displayed, along with bibliographic information that will allow you to find and buy the book.Google has teamed with several powerhouse university libraries, including Harvard, Stanford (a.k.a. the Leland Stanford Junior University), Oxford, and the University of California to digitize books and place them online.

Here are some examples of what's available:

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by a Square, with Illustration by the Author, Edwin Abbott, Little, Brown and Company (1899), 135 pages.

An Introduction to the Principles of Physical Chemistry from the Standpoint of Modern Atomistics..., Edward Wight Washburn, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. (1921), 516 pages.

History and Root of the Principle of the Conservation of Energy, Ernst Mach, The Open Court Publishing Co. (1911), 116 pages.

Mars, Percival Lowell, Longmans, Green, and Co. (1896), 228 pages.

Euclid's Elements of Geometry, the First Six Books, R. Potts., Cambridge University Press (1850), 345 pages.

1. Joyce, Dickens, Google -- classics are there to download.
2. Google Offers Classics for Free.
3. Google makes novels free to print