Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species hit the shelves on this day in 1859. In this year of the Darwin Bicentennial, it’s fitting to note that the landmark worked appeared in London, and by contemporary accounts, sold well. But what if….
This blog post ponders what would have happened if… CD hadn’t written and published the Origin, or had drowned, or just didn’t put together what his observations pointed toward. Would evolutionary theory have happened anyway? Yes, but, the author answers. Alternative history can be amusing for awhile, but I find that the history we have is tough enough to get straight, without messing around with ‘what ifs’.
Everything changes, including supercomputers. These things were once so rare and so special that almost each one was a custom job, unique in the strict sense, and very, very pricey because of all the special things that needed to be done for it. And, each gadget had its own clientele and was often housed in a dedicated facility. The NSA had their cypher-breaking machine in Ft. Meade, and the weather people had forecasting supers in various places and NASA had theirs, and the big universities had some, and so on. Well, it seems that the innards of the super have become standardized to a considerable degree and a large percentage of them is built with off-the-shelf components. So, they’ve become a lot cheaper, and the architecture is different, consisting of many, many individual chips set to work together. Some experts in the field are looking to make supers more generally available, in fact, available to pretty much anybody. The machines are getting more capable, and cheaper, so the arguments runs that it’s not necessary for them to have all the special care. Scientists would be able to book time on a kind of “public” super, do their computations and get the results. This measure is fitting nicely with the “Cloud” computing philosophy, in which a small number of large, very powerful units provide computing and data storage as a utility provides electricity or water or something. You pay for what you use. No need to have your own machine. Such a change would really lower entry barriers for investigators with processing-intensive tasks, but little or no access to their own equipment.
Read more here:
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was born in the Russia of the Czars in the middle of the Nineteenth centruy, lived in the Russia of the Revolution and the Soviet state, and died just as the ghastly show trials were in progress in Moscow. He was enormously busy all the time writing, drawing, thinking and talking about rocketry and the travel to other worlds that rocket propulsion would make possible. In the bad old Soviet days, boosters often claimed that many of the great inventions attributed to Europeans or Americans had actually been done, often long before, by Russians. There were jokes about it in the the New Yorker. But in Tsiolkovsky, they had a bona fide winner. Long before anybody had thought seriously, scientifically about this matter, Tsiolkovsky had worked out an elaborate body of doctrine and calculation about escape velocity, thrust, orbital dynamics and the whole business. It was all very meticulous and precise. And he was very often right on the money. He had some good ideas about fuel chemistry, and about the effects of weightlessness on humans. Tsiolkovsky was a science and math teacher, in secondary schools, and had no university affiliation. He pursued his space flight considerations on his own, and although he had several publications, I don’t think anybody took him too seriously. I mean, come on. But after WWI and the Revolution and the enormous advances in science and technology, his ideas started to seem less fantastic and maybe even practical. He encouraged the first generation of Soviet rocket engineers, and the early triumphs of Sputnik, and Soyuz and the big lifter rockets owe a very great deal to his work.
There is a new book exploring his work in the context of Soviet science, but the reviewer claims that this view is too narrow and political. A full length bio is needed, but whoever tries will have to have the chops: language skills, a good science background, math, and,yeah, be able to write too.
Barnes and Noble booksellers launched their e-reader not long ago. The company had tagged it as the Nook, I guess for New Book, or something. Nook sounds suspiciously like “nuke” to me, but what do I know and they didn’t ask me. Anyway, B&N was surprised (“hey, these things are moving”), pleased (“Oh good, we won’t get stuck with unsold units!”) and dismayed (“Oh God, we don’t have enough”), all in short order, to find out that their inital order for the gadgets was way too small. People were snapping them up like Billy-Be-Damned. And now, the whole first shipment of Nooks is gone, all sold out. This is really not bad for a first-generation gadget launch, so B&N has a little room to be pleased. But, I guess they didn’t understand how quickly the scene had changed. Amazon’s Kindle really broke the ice on the reader front, introducing some very swift motion after a long period of stasis. So, B&N under-ordered and now they have a bunch of ticked off customers who will either wait for their Nook, or go to the Kindle. I think SONY is having some of the same problems with its Reader device.
Despite the general satisfaction, all the makers and sellers of e-readers are tugging their collars nervously in anticipation of the 800 lb gorilla’s advent. And that is, the much vaunted and feared Apple E tablet. Nobody knows for sure if Apple really is working on something like this. And nobody knows what kind of a thing it will turn out to be, if they are. But, the general expectation is that the company which brought you the Ipod, the Iphone and the changes that came with these products, will not pass up a chance to go for the hat trick and launch a large-format reader cum other stuff device that will be a significant jump in capacity and function. Some support was given to the speculation by the news that Apple had commissioned Conde-Nast publishers, owners of some big glossy print mags, to prepare a digital version of WIRED magazine. So, we shall see what we shall see. But,
“Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat”, so if Apple doesn’t launch soon, they’ll miss the holiday season entirely. On the other hand, so? We’ll keep you posted.
Google gave some industry observers the first for-real look at its new operating system, called CHROME. The new software has been designed to make intensive use of internet capabilities, and devices running CHROME will not even have hard drives. Users will not have to worry about upgrading or installing software any more, ever. All data will be stored in the Cloud, etc, etc. Actual equipment running CHROME won’t appear for several months yet. Of course, the Cloud is just more Newspeak, in which either a neologism of some sort is introduced, to describe a concept so utterly mind-smashing that mere human speech cannot possible cover it, or in which some common, everyday word is given a ten-buck makeover and invested with all kinds of pseudo-mysterious attributes. And the latter is the case with Cloud. In essence, it seems to me, that CHROME allows you to go back to the 1970s or so, in which dumb terminals worked from a central, smart processing unit, on which was stored the OS and where all partial results were parked. The Cloud, my foot!
Everybody, almost, has been predicting the end of the newspaper, and surely the end of the printed newspaper any day now. Well, if that’s true, you can tell it to the guys who run the New York Daily News. This tabloid’s managers have recently sunk a great deal of money into the installation of new, fancy, improved, more economical and energy efficient….presses! You know, those big things you see in movies, which print the paper on paper, collate it, cut it, fold it, stack it, bind it and all the rest. It’s definitely a contrarian move, but the News says it was a smart one too. The owners obviously expect the rag to be around for a while, and, as one of them said, “we didn’t do this to lose money”. The nice, new shiny machines are the very latest thing in printing devices, and will save the paper plenty on operating costs and paper. But the biggest departure is in quality. Color images can be printed on every page, something no other paper can do, and advertisers really like that, because it makes their ads loolk a great deal better. In fact, the whole paper looks very good, slick even, which is something nobody said about the old format, and that may well attract new readers. Of course, the downturn has hurt the circulation (it dropped by almost 200,000) and ad revenue, but the News’s bet is that the $150 million investment will pay off. The new equipment can also print other newpapers as well as the News, offering another source of revenue. The previous equipment was installed in the 1950s. Cheez Louise! I was still in high school.
The holidays are coming and, depending on your plans and circumstances, that could mean having some extra time, at the airport for example, when your flight has been delayed or canceled. So, why not plan ahead, and get something to read, something in which scientists do scientist stuff, but in novels. Dr. Jennifer Rohn of the LabLit fliter blog, and herself a published novelist, has a list of books in which scientists of some sort are main characters and scientific doings are in some way important to the story. There are mysteries, thrillers, disaster books, spy stories, historical re-creations (Turbulence, for example is a novel about the attempts to forecast the weather before the Normandy landings in 1944), humor…yes, humor. The list is a continuing project, so if you know of a good book in which scientists are involved that’s not on the list, nominate it for inclusion.
Moebius! Yes, he of the strip, was born on this day in 1790. In addition to the one edged, one-sided figure which bears his moniker, AFM made a number of other contributions to Math, and was the director of an observatory for a while. Maybe somebody came up with the strip before Moebius, but he got the credit and the ink.
Click on the link in the last line and read for yourself.
The parties in the suit over Google’s digitization project have offered a new version of the settlement to the judge presiding over the case. It is intended to meet objections raised by the Dept. of Justice and by other groups, claiming that the previous draft of the agreement gave Google way, way too much clout. So, the judge ordered everyone to get back to work and come up with something better. The new draft will doubtless by parsed in excruciating detail by all those involved and by interested outsiders, so it looks as though we will have to keep an eye on this for a while. There is general agreement about the benefits to be expected from the availability of millions of books online, but that’s about where the agreement stops. Everybody is leery of Google, and the DOJ, after years of indifference, is watching very closely. Reports I’ve seen so far are a bit sketchy, but some things emerged: books from non-English speaking nations are excluded, more attention is paid to the problem of “orphan” works, etc. But, more substantial account will be coming out soon. In the meantime, read this summary from WIRED:
Concurring Opinions is a blog for law profs, and I look in on it from time to time to see what’s going on there in terms of copyright, patent, IP and similar considerations. A recent post has a discussion of the revised Google book deal, with an embedded link to another story on CNET.
The G has been the subject of several books, written from different slants. Another entry has appeared: Googled: The End of the World as We Know It. By Ken Auletta. Penguin Press; 384 pages; $27.95. Auletta is a seasoned reporter who has written about Wall St., the Media Biz and other business topics. I’ve haven’t read everything of his, but what I did read impressed me. The new work concentrates on the complex interplay of Google and the big media companies, how this dance will play out and what it means for users everywhere. Even analytical profiles merged with a little prediction have to get into personalities, so there are some “profiles” of the Google founders, and some discussion of how they work and of how it is to work with them. It was reviewed favorably in The Economist