Modern Mechanix » New NASA Space Telescope

Modern Mechanix » New NASA Space Telescope

OK … I HAD to comment specifically about this one, lol, if only to point you towards the comments of Modern Mechanix.

The funny thing about this ad is that “NASA Space Telescope” was the original name of the Hubble Space Telescope and Perkin-Elmer is the contractor that delivered a flawed main mirror, requiring a very expensive and difficult repair mission.

And its worth remembering when we look at ads today that just cause it looks good on paper, doesn’t mean you can actually pull it off, lol.


More Modern Mechanix Minutia …

Sometimes, it’ll be a month or more between my visits to Modern Mechanix but all that means is I’ll find more fascinating bits, lol. I think one of the reasons I go so infrequently is I know that I could easily spend a LOT of time daily at the sight.

Spent a few hours yesterday wandering through his past few weeks of posts, and there are some gems as usual … just a quick rundown of fascinating info from science of the past …

Detroit’s Latest Plastic Fantasies

There are some very beautiful and surprisingly modern cars in this set … I wonder how many Wildcat II’s are left around ;-)?


This was one of those ads that just couldn’t get to print today … aren’t there regulations about that sorta thing?  I’m sure you gotta take a test or something, lol.

Building Stratosphere Air-Liners

This was a fascinating look at the future of air travel from Allan Lockheed in 1935.  I loved some of the unusual dual-prop designs.  Some classic ads on the back pages here too … I especially like the “Be a Civil Engineer” ad from the American Technical Society on the fourth scanned page *G*.

Catapult Hurls Man into Lake

Ummm, what more can ya say here.  Its a surprisingly simple device … note that they thought of a special slide board to “avoid chafing as he flies off the sled while the latter comes to a sudden stop at the top of the incline.”  The obvious question here being … is chafing REALLY your biggest worry here?  The Monty Python crew would have loved one of these I think …

U.S. Steel & Univac

This was the height of computing technology in 1956.  Check out that operator’s console in the drawing … Windows are for weenies 😉

Rider “Tailored” to Motorbike to Set 170 m.p.h. Record

This HAS to be the world’s first crotch rocket … where the heck can I get me one of those?  *G*

1979 Review of the Cray-1 Supercomputer

23 years after Univac, the height of computing tech was a Cray.  As they point out at MM, a modern Pentium 4 is about 30 times faster than the Cray, and modern super-clusters are moving into 10’s and 100’s of terraflops now.  The picture on scanned page 3 makes me shudder as a system administrator, lol.

Taking the paper trail to Washington | Salon News

Taking the paper trail to Washington | Salon News

I don’t have much of a stake in the issue of electronic voting machines in the US.  We can argue about the effects of US politics on the world all we like, but the fact is, how a country votes is up to that country and no one else really.  How the US designs voting machines is of little personal interest to me, as I will likely never have to use one.

That said, I do have a professional interest in this sort of thing.  I’ve made my living for more than 2 decades as a computer systems administrator, with a speciality in database design and admin.  Most of my career has been spent as the data expert at whatever company I happen to be with.  For issues of data integrity, of data verification, of data mining, of data security, I have typically been the guy people go to for answers.

The issue of voting machines is certainly a political one as far as how they are deployed, when they are used, even to a degree how they are designed.  But ultimately, like the design of any other computerized system of data collection, storage and mining, the ACTUAL issues involved in their design are technical, not political.

There are a couple of basic principles to discuss, first and foremost.  Data integrity is the lynch-pin to any database system.  The data you get back on mining, or through queries, is ONLY as reliable as your least reliable data entry or data verification technique.  The proverbial “garbage in, garbage out” philosophy applies here … if the data going into the system isn’t valid (and more importantly can’t be PROVEN to be valid … I’ll get to that in a sec), then you have no real hope of getting valid data back out again.  If you can’t guarantee the data that went in, the answer it spits out is pretty much useless.

Part and parcel of data integrity is the notion of data verification.  Even the most rigorous data entry routines are prone to human error.  Its simply impossible to design an ‘idiot-proof’ data entry interface that provides no opportunity for error … that goal is a mathematical limit, an ideal we can approach, but never reach.  To offset this inherent problem, we use data verification techniques, technical and manual procedures that can be used, after the fact, to prove the integrity of the data in question.  To trust the integrity of data coming out of any database, you need to be able to verify and prove the data input, and every step along the way to the final output.

The paper trail is one way of doing this for a voting machine.  There is very little data manipulation going on inside a voting machine database (or at least there better be very little going on, lol) beyond the simple task of recording a vote, and the tasks of tallying those votes at the end of the day.  The main data integrity issue on a machine like this verification of the original user input … if all voters are satisfied that their votes were recorded successfully, you have data integrity.

Under older voting schemes, the paper trail was an inherent part of the process.  The hanging chad problem of 2000 shows this … you don’t get to argue about hanging chads at all, unless there is a paper trail to follow and recheck the ballots with.  However, when new electronic voting machines came into play, starting in the 2002 mid-term elections, they became the first voting machines with no ability to go back and verify votes.  While you can always look back at the electronic database of votes, there was and is no way to guarantee they haven’t been tampered with.  With a paper trail, a simple check of paper trail to electronic record verifies the data.
This leads to my final point in all this, transparency.  One of the main issues with data integrity in electronic voting machines is that from the time the vote is cast, till the time it is counted, and onward till its perhaps re-counted, we have no idea what whats been done to it.  Modifying a paper ballot involves a lot of effort, and has a high chance of detection given the layers of security that paper ballots are wrapped in.  Even when a paper ballot is modified, the alterations are often identifiable by experts.  Modifying an electronic ballot is a different proposition all together … there is no record of the change once its been done, and with concerns raised about wireless access to voting terminals, there is question about security keeping people out of the system.  In short, the electronic ballot isn’t wrapped in the same security as the paper one, and if one is altered, we have no way of identifying that after the fact.

The way around this is Open Source Software.  At present, voting machines are made by private companies like Diebold who keep their source code secret, citing proprietary software, and intellectual property concerns.  Unfortunately, with corporate controlled software, there is no transparency, and no ability to verify whats being done behind the scenes.  In proprietary software, adding code (for example) to turn every 20th vote the other way is easy to add, and nearly impossible to detect from the outside.  With open source software, its JUST as easy to add, but would be detected by the first independent person to examine the code.  Having software in the open source domain means that nothing can be hidden in the code, and all functionality is transparent and obvious.  We can trust the analysis of open source because, unlike a proprietary model where only experts with a vested interest can examine the code, EVERY expert who wants to can examine the code, and so no single ideological viewpoint holds sway.

In the end, current electronic voting machines suffer from two fatal flaws.  First, a paper trail is a fundamental part of both the electoral system, and the notion of data integrity.  One of the simplest ways to insure your input data is accurate, is print and store a paper version of it that can be used later to verify.  Its not rocket science, but its a very effective way to ensure accuracy, and to reduce the likelihood of tampering … a person who knows things MIGHT be checked is far less likely to tamper than someone who knows they CAN’T be checked.  Second, its difficult, if not impossible, to have strict confidence in the coding of these systems.  Any software system that is proprietary has the potential for unannounced functionality, but its perhaps not so important in other places.  But when it comes to exercising our democratic right to vote, there is a vital civic need to KNOW that the code is doing what it purports to do.  The only way to truly do that is to allow independent experts to verify your code through the open source process.

Electronic voting machines ARE the wave of the future, of that I have no doubt.  But given the current designs, and the software models in place on current units, I have very little confidence in the integrity of data coming out of them.  The fact is, voting is one of the most vital functions we perform as citizens, and the accurate rendering of votes is critical to the proper function of a democracy.  When we do make the move to electronic machines in a big way, we need to be certain that they do the job they are supposed to do.  There are likely other ways to do this, but paper trails and open source software are two simple ways to add a HUGE amount of integrity to a system that, from a technical standpoint anyway, has very little integrity at all.

This Modern World | Salon Comics | Are you a Gloomy Gus, or a Perky Pete?

This Modern World | Salon Comics


This Modern World is a perfect example of the adage that cartoons do NOT have to be funny. While the strips sometimes do make me laugh, the point of This Modern World is far more to make us think than to make us laugh. This one in particular was one I wanted to share … and for the record, I am using this image as an advertisement, of sorts, for Tom Tomorrow and This Modern World. I didn’t request permission to use it and use it only to provide an example of the strip.

From the Archives … of the Globe and Mail

I am a voracious reader of newspapers.  I read at least 2 physical papers a day … the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Sun (well, this is assuming I am at home and not travelling) … plus several others on-line on the average day.  One of the main reasons I read so many different ones is to get a different perspective on the same events … while the Globe and Mail gives me a centrist, small-l liberal (and sometimes capital-L Liberal) view of global news, the Sun gives me the regional, conservative view.  Same stories, different news in many cases.

One of the things I like most about the Globe and Mail is its history.  It has been the ‘paper of record’ in Canada for over 150 years, starting in 1844 as the Globe, and the archives of the Globe provide a unique trip through the history of Canada.  In the Saturday globe, in fact, they run a feature called “From the Archives” that features information and stories culled from their pages exactly 25, 50, and 100 years ago.  As a history buff, its always been one of my favorite sections, as it speaks both to human history, and also to how the perspective of time changes our views on certain things.  On the other hand, it can also be a solid reminder that, despite how much things change, they really stay the same.

Reading the entry this weekend from the “25 years ago” section, I was struck by the fact that, but for a few specific terms, it could just as easily have been written today, and in 25 years time, in late July of 2031, the 25 years ago and 50 years ago segments will be practically identical.  Below is the full text of that entry, reprinted from page R7 of July 22, 2006 edition of the Globe and Mail.

25 Years Ago: The Globe and Mail reported that Israel, defying U.S. calls for a ceasefire, launched major land and air attacks in two areas of Southern Lebanon.  The Canadian dollar hit $82.40 cents, its lowest rate in 48 years.  A sometimes fatal variety of the mosquito-borne disease dengue, making its first appearance in the Western Hemisphere, took 58 lives in Cuba and raised a scare across the Caribbean.

In today’s world, the U.S. isn’t calling for a ceasefire this time around, but ofc, the rest of that is pretty accurate.  Current Canadian dollar rates are about 5 cents higher than 25 years ago, and 87 cents, and we’ll be calling it the highest rates in many years.  And while dengue may seem like a ‘quaint’ concern in 2006, today its West Nile virus that is the latest potentially fatal mosquito-borne diseases to make its way to the Western Hemisphere again.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  “From the Archives” helps show that in crisp, clear, black and white.

Reflections on Planet Earth

Astronomy Picture of the Day


This is such an amazing picture.  And in light of my recent post on the size of the universe, Feeling Insignificant Yet?, its perhaps another image to add at the beginning of that set of images.  Ostensibly, this is just a normal day at work for Michael Fossum.  Whether he was alerted to his visor reflection by colleague Piers Sellers or whether this is sheer serendipity isn’t known, but his effort to turn the camera back on himself gives us a truly stunning photo.

Perhaps the most striking thing is that this image has only been possible for half a century, and even conceivable for less than 100 years.  If we could show this image to someone stepping out of the 19th century, its hard to predict the psychic impact it would have.  Cars, and airplanes, and sky-scrapers are technological wonders that the 19th century man would marvel at, without a doubt.  But none of those, in themselves, forces a paradigm shift into the space age.  Even rockets themselves have an unreal quality that allows us to see them without fully integrating the impact into our psyches.  But its impossible to look at Sellers and Fossum, suspended in space with our fragile blue globe behind without acknowledging the different era we have entered.  More than any other, this image of two men hanging silently in the blackness, with the beautiful blue earth behind, is the image of new paradigms for our whole planet.  Welcome to the future … its clearly visible in this image.

BibliOdyssey: Michael of Rhodes

BibliOdyssey: Michael of Rhodes

I just adore old books and manuscripts. Even if I can’t read the language, to be able to flip through a book that is 300 years old is something that has always turned me on. Illuminated manuscripts have always been a particular favorite of mine … there is art inherent without even considering the content or subject material. An illuminated manuscript is at least 2 works of art in one, IMO … the art that comes from the content, and the art that comes from the layout, the design, the arrangement of text and pictures, the calligraphic flourishes.

The blog I linked to above is called BibliOdyssey, and on it he scans old manuscripts from a variety of sources. He recently did several days worth of postings on biology and nature texts from the past, with some absolutely stunning nature artistry. The other day scanned in a huge number of Esotonian illustrators, and as a fan of old maps as well, I was absolutely drooling over his post on the Portolan Atlas.

His current entry is for the remarkable manuscript of Michael of Rhodes. A travelogue of sorts, this manuscript details the life of a medieval mariner as he travels the globe, rises trough the ranks, and fights in some major sea battles. While the artistic qualities of the illustrations don’t hold up well to others posted at BibliOdyssey, the ‘crudeness’ of them lends to the personal feel of this manuscript.

In fact, Michael of Rhodes incorporates most of what I find compelling about old books. For me, its about travelling to places in the distant past, about examining the lives of people who, but for the fate of a few hundred years, might have been like any one of us. The most interesting old manuscripts, to me, are ones that tell a specific story and/or shed light on the state of humanity or human knowledge at a particular time. As a personal biography of a naval officer who travels the world, Michael of Rhodes covers almost all those bases.

Beyond the images scanned on BibliOdyssey, there is a website up that has all the scanned pages of the manuscript as a flash animation. There’s more detail in his life and times, and tons of detail on the manuscript itself. Its a great companion to the BibliOdyssey scans, especially if you are a sucker for detail, like me :).