Six Things

Quick! Name 6 things we take for granted, but without which our world would be quite different! Read all about it here.

I’ve been racing through a great read: How We Got To Now, by Steven Johnson. He describes 6 innovations that shaped our world. I wish I had a job writing about stuff like that! Making connections from hither and yon. It reminds me of the series “Connections,” with James Burke, on TV long ago. (Johnson’s stories are also from a series: on PBS.)

Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342
Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342

The first chapter is about glass. It’s impact in everything from windows to lenses, to fiber optics. The writing is loaded with fascinating facts. Johnson proposes that while Gutenberg’s printing press made books available to the populace at large (making them affordable, both to buy and to print), it was lenses that made it possible for the majority of people to read. Up until then, with more than half the population far-sighted, it would not have been practical to buy a book and bring it home and read it. This assumes one had already gone to the trouble of learning to read, which was not taught in schools, there being no public schools in the sixteenth centuries!

One aspect of glass that Johnson glosses over (pardon the weak attempt at a pun), is how glass made possible windows. Not windows in homes, which he does describe. But windows in vehicles.

I propose that, although the steam engine and the internal combustion engine made possible long distance travel, none of that would have gone far (okay, a better pun) without glass for windows. One can make a powerful engine, a vehicle, even a carriage way (for trains and then cars). But without windows one would be limited to about 20 miles per hour. Beyond that, the force of wind – and inclement weather – would have made piloting the vehicle impossible. And what about air travel? I suppose one could have an aircraft with a periscope.

There would have been no need for an interstate highway system. No aircraft industry. No long distance vacation travel, except for the wealthy.

It’s fun to contemplate such a world. Maybe a good plot line for a sci-fi novel. Or on a world not made with a silica crust.

So, the next time you look out the car window at the rain pouring down, think about the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Confused? Read the book.

P.S. I noticed this on YouTube (of course): World without Glass. Hah!

P.P.S. Johnson writes that glass making would not have been possible without 1,000 degree furnaces. Those would not have been possible without ceramic bricks. From whence did furnaces evolve? Although no one knows, it may have been from ceramic glazing or metalworking.

Stock Market Crosses 21,000 – so what?

Is the DJIA increase of 1,000 points in “a little more than a month” really something exciting?

On the business news this week: amazement at how quickly the Dow went 1,000 points, from 20,000 to 21,000. “In a little more than a month,” Tanya Rivero exults on Wall Street Journal Video. Yes, a whole 1,000 points.

But I got to thinking: what’s the real math going on here?

21,000 from 20,000 is an increase of about 5 per cent (using my skills at estimating, which I learned in grade school long, long ago). Did the Dow ever increase by more than 5% in “a little more than a month” before this?

Well, looking all the way back to January of this year, we see that the DJIA went from 19,000 to 20,000 in two months. That’s 5.26%. Of course, it was recovering what it lost in the run-up to the election.

I searched and found historical data from the Dow. I was amazed at how tough it was to find free information to download. Apparently, the Dow data is copyrighted, so here is my attribution: Copyright © 2016, S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. All rights reserved. I hope I haven’t broken any rules. I got the data from Yahoo.

Anyway, I created a spreadsheet, added formulae to look back one month, then calculated the “one month increase” in per cent. Here’s the chart:

DJIA Percent Change in 1 Month
DJIA Percent Change in 1 Month

You may see that there are many months for which the increase was more than 5%. In 1998, there were months – many months – with more than 10% or 12%!

So? Big deal about 20,000 to 21,000. If the market were all about increases in absolute terms, then we could get excited about an increase of 1,000. But the market is driven by percentage increases: increasing one’s investment to stay ahead of inflation, save for retirement, etc.

I’m not asking for the hyper-growth of 1998, because we all remember what happened next back then. But let’s keep things in perspective.

Airlines and Media

An article I noticed today via FlipBoard:

American Airlines ditches the seat-back entertainment screen on some planes

Well, American, you’re behind the times. United has had this lack-of-media on their 747s for years. I’ve enjoyed the lack of movie choices on flights as long as 14 hours to Hong Kong.

“Lack of choice,” you say? “United provides in-seat charging ports.” Well, yes, they do: there are two AC sockets for every three seats. (United doesn’t mention this on their web page.) How does that work when the flights are fully-booked? You do the math. And reaching down between your neighbor’s calves to reinsert your charger (with its half-meter-long cord) can be a little too close for comfort).

It’s not as bad as all that. I get to watch the movie on the big screen in the front of the cabin. It’s interesting to guess at when the movie will begin if you’ve been trying to sleep. Since one does not get one’s personal choice at when to click ‘Play’, one has to be alert.

And support for multi-lingual cabins? Well, you can have as many as three languages going at once: (1) the original sub-titles in the movie to inform the English speaking audience what the actors’ foreign language lines mean; (2) the superimposed translated sub-titles, usually in the language of the aircraft’s destination [read: Chinese, Korean, etc.]; and (3) the language coming into your audio headset from the selected channel on the armrest. It’s not bad for people who’ve selected an audio language different from English. But the English speakers hear the foreign lines of the actors, and see two sets of superimposed sub-titles, making neither set legible on the screen. Come on, United, this is not rocket science! It’s not even aircraft science!

Then there is the persistent skipping of the video on the screen. The picture freezes for a moment, then continues one or two seconds further along in the film. This is not problem when seeing beautiful scenery and lovely background music, nor during a chase scene. But in the tense dialogue during a murder mystery, missing a few seconds of conversation can throw off the entire plot line! What’s going on here? Overheating in the DVD player? Problems in the streaming source? Again, why wasn’t this detected in the development of the multimedia system?

To “land the plane” on this topic, how should these problems be solved? We’ve all been spoiled by immediate gratification from our Internet connections and smart phones, so these issues on board a long flight really bother us. Maybe we should just think of the 747 overseas flight as a reminder of how things used to be 30 or 40 years ago. And open up a book on our lap, read a bit, and fall asleep to the drone of the engines.

P.S. Thanks to googling, I found this article explaining that United (and Delta) – the only carriers using 747s – will be retiring their 747s by the end of 2017. “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, goodbye…”

Virtual Reality – Where will it end?

Okay, I’m still on the subject of Virtual Reality. In our newspaper, the venerable San Jose Mercury News, there’s a big article on the Business page, right up front: “Rent-a-Reality”. (I found the article here, but not yet on the SJMerc’s own page.) The story is about how some amusement parks have combined their rides with virtual reality goggles, to put the physical sensations of roller coasters and the like into a new world of attacking monsters and such.

In concluding the section on Six Flags’ coaster ride, the author, Ryan Nakashima, writes: “Pro tip: go around twice, once with the header on and once without…”

Yeah, I can imagine how captivating the VR experience might be!

But the article goes on with examples of fans being teased by a VR image of their heartthrob, all for $18; and one of shooting at ghosts at the wax museum in New York, for $55.

James Brooks, of the Associated Press, writes of the London experience that “Museum officials say they aren’t worried these experiences might one day replace traditional museums.”

Well, let’s see. Children today are spending more and more time in front of screens of one sort or another. Once VR goggles come down in price and the software and networking challenges are solved (all of which is inevitable), what will hold children of all ages back from spending more and more time wearing goggles, and living in imaginary settings?

How about put on some real goggles and go swimming with your friends? Or run around in the back yard, getting sweaty and stinky for real? Or go climb a real mountain and experience the real thrill of heights and depths of Nature’s creations?

I guess once we perfect virtual reality experiences, we won’t need real wild animals or real national parks or real mountains to climb.

But then maybe it won’t matter because – as Stephen Hawking recommended this week – we ought to be planning to leave the planet anyway.

Pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Thank you, Joni.

In the Groove?

Work feels good. And it’s not just because it’s new, challenging technology. It reminds me of…

Back at work. It feels good. It feels normal.
Somehow, a lot of my life’s track has been to stay in the groove.
The groove of working on a career, in a field with my experience, bringing home the bacon (pardon the mixed metaphors), and balancing life.
Ironically, I’ve come full circle.
I started my engineering career at Eastman Kodak Company.
Now I’m working at a phenomenal camera company, Light.

I’ve been reading a few scientific articles related to my new job. It’s amazing to see the engineering (and scientific) efforts devoted to enlivening a field that’s mostly remained unchanged for 150 years!

Yes, engineer can be exciting.

Addendum #1: Interesting how others have tried to make a slim camera as good and portable as an SLR: Kodak Disc Camera 4000 (ca. 1982)

kodakdisccamera-4000According to my sources, the original, lab samples of the film duplicated the quality of SLR photos, Kodak having solved the problem of making extremely small grains. But apparently it was terribly hard to manufacture, and so the pictures were not what people expected. So, back to the drawing board.


Addendum #2: This arrived in the mail yesterday. $5 on eBay!

kodakinstant8000Nice little collection starting. I hope it doesn’t get out of control.

Creativity is the Crux

I’ve thought a lot recently about what motivates me as an engineer.

Is it “Coming Face to Face with a Technical Challenge”?

Is it “Learning a New Programming Language in Record Time”?

Is it “Completing an Impossible Project on Schedule”?

Well, tackling those tasks can be powerful motivators, but there’s something more fundamental at work.

Continue reading “Creativity is the Crux”

It Doesn’t Take Much

Just a couple of hours, far away from technology, and somehow I can come back exhausted but refreshed.

Biking is my drug of choice. Getting physically tired while not damaging muscles, tendons and bones too badly is a great method to “flush the system”.

Not that it’s always pain free. Beyond the usual aches from overdoing it (e.g., trying to go too far or too high), there’s the unexpected obstacle scenario.

2016-06-08 07.57.04This was back in June, when I was attacked by a chain link fence, laid down across the bike path.

Even after the pain and slight expense of repairing the bike, I was back to ‘relaxing’ the next week.

I wonder what other engineers do to relax? I guess as long as their lives are not dominated by being engineers, they can add other ingredients to sweeten the brew, and still come out ahead.