I have previously written about Harry Eng’s Impossible Bottles but there is another style of beautiful engineering which is not so much impossible but involves painstaking dedication, ingenuity, and sometimes a touch of insanity.
Claude Pilliard enjoys creating vacuum tube amplifiers from scratch, as seen in this step-by-step video.
An elegant adding machine made of wood and using marbles to represent numbers in binary, complete with correct handling of numeric overflow.
More information and other wooden marble contraptions here.
Beautifully engineered Enigma-like "coding machine" hand made by Tatjana van Vark.
“Each wheel has 509 parts.” Incredible!
I have previously written about Ron Patrick’s rather unique home-modified WV Beetle, and I remain impressed with his engineering skills.
It is street legal and technically a “hybrid”, since it has two methods of propulsion.
What a nutcase!
Bad Astronomy is a book by Philip Plait, Ph.D. (creator of the website by the same name: www.badastronomy.com) wherein he explains the common misconceptions, misunderstandings, and questions that you’ve never really thought about in so much depth before.
Why is the sky blue? Why do the stars twinkle? Was the moon landing a hoax? Where is the centre of the universe?
Often his answers start off which what is common knowledge but then supersede that with a bunch of extra detail and insight; such as the chapter about tides, which starts off talking about the moon, then recedes to cover gravity principles, then involves the tidal influence of the sun, and ends with the following paragraph:
So the next time you're at the beach, think for a moment about what you're seeing. The force of tides may take the water in and out from the shoreline, but it also lengthens our day, pushes the Moon farther away, creates volcanoes, eats stars, and viciously tears apart whole galaxies. Of course, the tides also make it easier to find pretty shells on the coastline. Sometimes it's awesome to think about the universe as a whole, but other times it's okay just to wiggle your toes in the wet sand.
Bad Astronomy is essentially an astronomy-specific variant of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.
Over the past few years I have read a number of books that fit into the genre that I like to call “Insane adventurers and their jaw-dropping death pursuits”. From sailing around the world and climbing large mountains, to walking across entire continents; the one thing they all seem to have in common is their relentless pursuit of ambitious goals, often in the face of significant adversity, and bordering on insanity.
Bear Grylls is perhaps more known these days for jumping out of helicopters and eating live animals on his sensational survivalist show Man vs. Wild, however we shouldn’t forget that in 1998 he became the youngest Briton to successfully climb Mount Everest.
If you have any doubts about the significance of this feat you should read the book he wrote about it.
Nine men set off individually to sail around the world, in various states of preparation:
“The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race was a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race, held in 1968–1969, and was the first round-the-world yacht race. The race was controversial due to the failure by most competitors to finish the race and because of the suicide of one entrant; however, it ultimately led to the founding of the BOC Challenge and Vendée Globe round-the-world races, both of which continue to be successful and popular.” — Wikipedia
The peak of Mount Everest pokes into an altitude where aircraft cruise. The high speed “jet stream” winds make it impossible to climb to the top, except for a short window of time each year when the jet streams are redirected. The mountaineers awaiting this window of opportunity each year attempt to find a suitable weather window in which to scurry (slowly) to the top in a semi-conscious daze and (hopefully) make it back alive..
In the 1996 season the jet streams came back early and caught a lot of people by surprise. Jon Krakauer was there as a journalist on an expedition with acclaimed mountain guide Rob Hall, and documented the adversity in this book.
Mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out in 1985 to be the first to climb Siula Grande (6,344m) in the Peruvian Andes, via its West face which is almost vertical.
They made it to the peak however there were some 'complications' on the descent. Namely Joe Simpson slipped and injured his leg. Initially he thought the injury was not that serious and that he was just being (in his own words) "a bit wet". In reality, his calf bone had been driven up into the knee joint, which is why he was finding walking a little difficult.
"It completely destroyed both of my meniscus cartilages, crushed between femur and tibia, caused disruption of the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and also damaged the fibular head and peroneal nerve. To complicate things further I had also fractured the ankle and the heel of the same leg but didn't notice at the time as I had quite a lot on my mind."
By this time the pair had also run out of fuel for their stove and so, unable to melt snow for drinking water, were becoming dehydrated.
This was only the beginning of their adventures.
Steven Callahan set out on a race from the Canary Islands to the Carribean in 1986 but after six days his boat sank and he had to make do in his survival raft for the next 10 weeks, fending off the sharks, fishing with his harpoon gun, and distilling water using temperamental solar sills.
His raft punctured and he had to come up with some ingenious repairs and continually re-inflate it. He used an improvised sextant made out of out of three pencils to navigate. His harpoon gun broke, repeatedly.
Through all this he did not give up and managed to survive until he drifted to salvation.
You might think that some of the people described above are quite hard-core, and yes, they sure are. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, however is an absolute lunatic. He is in a league of his own.
In his auto-biography he describes his exploits from the early days through to modern times. The tales of adversity and stamina on his various expeditions are second to none.
There was this one time, when he visited both the north and south poles on foot; or he time that he got frostbite on his hand and, fed up of waiting for the operation to remove his blackened fingertips, amputated them himself, in his shed, using a saw. Or the time that he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest at the age of 65. Or when he ran a marathon (that's quite a long way)… at the age of 59… (that's pretty impressive)… having had a heart attack and double heart bypass only four months prior… (wow, what a recovery!) I mean, that's pretty impressive, and more than a little insane, right?
Except it wasn't just one marathon. He actually did seven marathons, on seven consecutive days, and did them on seven different continents. At the age of 59. Four months after a heart attack. Bam!
The results from my annual home broadband speed test this year indicate:
The declining download speed is not much concern to me, as it is consistent and more than fast enough for my requirements.
More importantly, I am happy that in the past year we have not had any noticeable degradation or outages, which, alas, means I have nothing further to report on the awesome customer service of O2.
Not to be confused with the movie of the same name, this book is a decade older, and presents a view of the MIT hacker culture. Arising from the Technical Model Railroad Club, in the days of the Programmed Data Processor (PDP), where computers were so large and costly that they had to be shared by entire departments. The Technical Model Railroad Club was utterly fascinated by what could be done with this new technology, and spent waking nights hacking on the computers.
Since computer time was scarce you had to book in advance for a specific time slot to run your “Official Sanctioned Programs”. Bookings were taken around the clock, and the enthusiasts chose to hang out at all hours, being ready to jump into any time slot that people didn’t turn up for. (Unsurprisingly these were the late night time slots.)
In these nights they explored the capabilities of this early technology, they wrote games, they wrote the first interactive debuggers. Things were low-level; programs were written in assembly, and the hackers were obsessed by succinctness and efficiency. On one occasion the impromptu “Midnight Computer Wiring Society” actually rewired the mainframe (against all sanctions) to implement a new instruction at the hardware level!
Things were different for computing in those days: Rather than each person having a computer on their desk, and another on their lap, and another in the mobile telephone in their pocket, there was only one terminal. And when you were on the terminal, you often had an audience. (No pressure!)
People would sit at all hours of the night and argue what to an outsider would be bafflingly arcane points. These arguments were the lifeblood of the hacker community. Sometimes people would literally scream at each other, insisting on a certain kind of coding scheme for an assembler, or a specific type of interface, or a particular feature in a computer language. These differences would have hackers banging on the blackboard, or throwing chalk across the room. It wasn't so much a battle of egos as it was an attempt to figure out what The Right Thing was. The term had special meaning to the hackers. The Right Thing implied that to any problem, whether a programming dilemma, a hardware interface mismatch, or a question of software architecture, a solution existed that was just ... it. The perfect algorithm. You'd have hacked right into the sweet spot, and anyone with half a brain would see that the straight line between two points had been drawn, and there was no sense trying to top it. "The Right Thing," Gosper would later explain, "very specifically meant the unique, correct, elegant solution ... the thing that satisfied all the constraints at the same time, which everyone seemed to believe existed for most problems."
From here grew the personal computer revolution. Computers got smaller and more affordable, and entered the mainstream. The classic computer games companies Sierra On-Line, Sirius, and Brøderbund Software (now all sadly defunct) emerged, as well as the very beginnings of companies such as Microsoft, Apple Computer, and Atari.
Elephants on Acid and Other Bizzare Experiments is a collection of interesting, entertaining, and sometimes disturbing experiments collected by Alex Boese. It looks to have a lot of overlap with Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, Richard Wiseman (author of 59 Seconds), so I’m going to skip Quirkology — I seem to be getting stuck recently reading several books of the same genre or style and finding a lot of overlaps.
From attempts to bring dead animals and people back to life (using electricity), to measuring the weight of a soul (by carefully weighing a terminal patient as they expire), and inviting road rage (by waiting in a stopped car for an extended period after the lights turn green), Alex has amassed a collection of these weird and wonderful experiments, carefully catalogued into themed sections.
True to the promise of the title, there is also coverage of LSD administered to elephants, with rather unexpected and somewhat devastating results, in one case.
An interesting and light read.
Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.
Portrait of a Young Forger is, as the subtitle says, A true story of adventure and survival in wartime Europe. I remember reading this book in school and for some reason I felt the need to read it again. I tracked down and bought a second-hand copy (it seems to be a pretty rare title), but according to the invoice, which I've been using as a bookmark, this was in late 2007. It wasn't until 2010 that I actually got around to reading it again.
Marian Pretzel was a young Jewish art student living in Lvov, Poland. He talks about being fond of sports, the 'Dror' sports club he was involved with, and his decision to go to art school. But when the Nazi occupation came it quickly destroyed his family and landed him in the Janowska concentration camp.
It was painfully clear to Marian that he would not survive long at Janowska, and he soon made a miraculous escape from the camp. Previously, he and a friend were given the challenge of forging some stamps on an official-looking document; now Marian had to rapidly develop his forging skills to help his survival.
The book chronicles his journeys during the war years with various friends, around Poland, the USSR, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Each trip was backed by a well thought-out and rehearsed cover story, and suitable forged documents bearing all the right stamps.
His escape from Janowska was only one of his many brushes with death. Along the way he lost countless family members and friends who were not so lucky as he was. And although his survival was largely based on resourcefulness, ingenuity, and boldness, on many occasions it came down to pure luck. For instance, on one occasion he and a friend missed their train because they had to collect a boarding pass before embarking; the train became full while they were in the queue so they had to wait until the next day. Meanwhile, the place they were going to was bombed, and most of the inhabitants killed — had they caught the train they intended, they would likely be amongst those dead.
This book really puts things into perspective for someone who lives in London, goes to work every day, and has responsibilities including ironing work shirts and feeding the cat. The thought of not having anything to eat and dodging the Gestapo at every corner is quite a startling one.
Amazingly, through all this Marian manages to keep a clear head and a positive attitude at a time when many around him are paralysed, mesmerised, and stupefied, by fear:
I had lost everything but my life... I made a slow and careful inventory of the qualities I possessed and how they could be instrumental in my survival.
Jesse Schell gives a brief walkthrough of what the world would be like if everything was somehow interconnected as part of one giant game, where you get points for waking up on time and for brushing your teeth, and changeable e-ink tattoos that earn you points through the “Tatoogle AdSense” programme, and a new high-score on your daughter’s piano practice earns her points for her Arts Council funded music scholarship...
It’s only 10 minutes long; hang around for the finale, it’s good.
“Anyway, I’m not sure about all that, but I do know this stuff is coming. Man, it’s got to come; what’s going to stop it?”
[Via TED: Best of the Web]
“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” — Thomas Jefferson
Daniel Fortunov holds a First-Class BSc Honours degree in Applied Computer Science and Cybernetics from the University of Reading. He was awarded the Usher/Whitfield Cybernetics Prize for Best BSc/BEng Degree Result and travelled to New York to present original research at the IEEE EMBS conference.
He currently works in London as a software developer in the financial sector.
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