Tag Archives: technology

A Jingle from the Lockheed Skunk Works

There's no confusion!
We aim to implement fusion!
It's a tougher catch than lightning in a bottle.

But we can do it!
We made the Blackbird and flew it,
And we circumnavigated at full throttle.

Yes, some are skeptical
That our receptacle,
For holy fire might be a mayonnaise jar.

So we'll assure 'em,
Our R&D is kosher for Purim,
And this'll be our best result by far!

Hedge funds: don't short us!
Federal watchdogs: don't report us!
It'll take a while, so journalists: rake some muck!

Still, we're not kidding.
We're doing DARPA's bidding,
And soon we'll ship reactors on a truck!

(WaPo on Lockheed)


It was a formidable task, but agitators or Alinskyites have finally managed to pit the workers against the founders:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IugvemOyZY&w=480]

By such is my muse newly stirred: Empirical lurkers,
We're studying workers,
And hoping to model their nest.

We've come from the foundry
To size up the boundary
And feel that old Al does it best.

We've taken great pains
To see no ant remains;
We've worked hard to effect their premoval.

You'll be happy to learn, the
New method would earn the
Fourteenth Dalai Lama's approval.

What's the Frequency, Flik?

The internet is pretty slick. Every attached computer has a unique address sort of like a phone number. (Sometimes, entire sub-networks lurk behind a single address through the miracles of IP and routing and such, just as entire switchboards of phones may lie behind the phone number of a main switchboard, but that's another story.)

Thanks to Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), files can be sent from one address to another with amazing efficiency. The brilliance of TCP's design lies in this: the rate at which stuff is sent automatically throttles up or down in response to network latency as measured by response time!

The Office – S5/E9: The Surplus from Vimeo.

Let's break it down. TCP is cool because "transmission control" sounds like "mission control" and that sounds like something NASA would have. But TCP is also cool because of how it works. Grossly simplified, it works like this:

  • You want to send that document requesting a pony to someone who has sent you a blind solicitation.
  • The networky stuff in your computer breaks the document into a bunch of "packets". Just like real parcels sent through UPS or Fedex or that other service, each packet is wrapped with a label explaining where it came from, where it's going, and so forth.
  • The packets follow various routes to their destination. As they arrive, the recipient (i.e., networky stuff on the other guy's computer) sends a receipt (called an "ack") to the sender. Meanwhile, the recipient uses the wrapper info to figure out whether all the packets have arrived, to put them in their correct order, and finally to reassemble the document. Transmission Accomplished!
  • The best part is the flow control. The sender starts by spraying out some packets and timing how long it takes to get a receipt for them. If the receipts come quickly, the sender sends more packets at a time. If the receipts come slowly, the sender sends fewer packets at a time (even stopping cold, if necessary). And since there's an ongoing flow of shipments and receipts and timing, the sender can avoid flooding the network but can also avoid letting bandwidth go to waste! Faster and faster! Slower and slower! No, faster! Slower! Strike that! Reverse it!
Flik, from Pixar's A Bug's Life
Flik, from Pixar's A Bug's Life

Now, here's the trippy science factoid du jour: researchers at Leland Stanford Junior University have discovered that Harvester Ants (including, apparently, the most venemous insect in the world) have been using TCP all along… behind Vint Cerf's and Bob Kahn's backs! Says the press release:

the rate at which harvester ants – which forage for seeds as individuals – leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.

A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

They also found that the ants followed two other phases of TCP. One phase is known as slow start, which describes how a source sends out a large wave of packets at the beginning of a transmission to gauge bandwidth; similarly, when the harvester ants begin foraging, they send out foragers to scope out food availability before scaling up or down the rate of outgoing foragers.

Another protocol, called time-out, occurs when a data transfer link breaks or is disrupted, and the source stops sending packets. Similarly, when foragers are prevented from returning to the nest for more than 20 minutes, no more foragers leave the nest.

Further research into what these critters might teach us will be undertaken at the newly funded FourmiLab. Meanwhile, I leave you with a meditation on Proverbs 6:6 by e. e. cummings: go(perpe)go from his 1935 manuscript No Thanks (in George James Firmage, ed., E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, Revised, NY: Norton, 1994, p. 403 or thereabouts).

go(perpe)go, e. e. cummings, No Thanks, #20, 1935
go(perpe)go, e. e. cummings, No Thanks, #20, 1935


Steve Jobs and Machine Beauty

With the Facebook Timeline just around the corner, and with Steve Jobs shuffling off this mortal coil, I'd like to consider what makes some technologies so different, so appealing.

Last night I asked my art history students what was distinctive about the contribution of Steve Jobs. A few compared him to inventors such as Edison or Tesla. A few looked for an answer in his emphasis on design. I joined the second group and challenged the first by pointing out (as The Economist had already done with great clarity) that Jobs had invented none of the technologies or devices for which he's best known: the mouse-driven computer, the digital audio player, the smart phone, and the tablet. But I also pressed that second group with a follow-up question: if his contribution had to do with design, not invention, then just what was the nature of his contribution to design?

The ensuing discussion was brief and stimulating. After the students had shared their views, I shared mine: I think Steve Jobs emphasized machine beauty with such focus and force that he made the artificiality of devices disappear. Calling him "The Magician", The Economist ascribes to him the ability to connect emotion to technology:

"His great achievement was to combine an emotional spark with computer technology, and make the resulting product feel personal."

Almost. It is the relationship we have with ourselves and our own capabilities that is emotional and personal; Jobs introduced into this already extant feedback loop a device which amplifies our self-signal without getting in our way. Rather than wallow in the narcissism of self-admiration as we see our latent powers amplified, we call the device itself cool. But whenever we call a device cool, what we mean is that it can easily make us more powerful in a way we desire. And that's cool.

What is machine beauty? The clearest and most useful answer to this question comes from David Gelernter (innovator and former patent-holder of the Lifestream technology, which has been at the center of consequential litigation involving Apple). Many stakeholders have by now laid claim to this concept, and perhaps we'll have a post here someday on the idiocy of many software patents, the Peter/Paul problems in patent granting, and the incoherence of the very idea of a software patent. For now, though, I want to bracket out the question of Apple's possible employment of Microsoftian market practices. Gelernter is noteworthy here not just because of his technological innovation, but also because he thinks deeply about the usability of machines, about art, and about beauty.

In his terse, punchy book Machine Beauty, Gelernter proposes a simple definition of the factor that distinguishes great technologies: machine beauty is the well-balanced integration of simplicity and power. Consider technologies that consists of devices. A device may be powerful but not simple; it requires the user to learn, study, and practice. A device may be simple but not powerful; it's hardly worthy of attention, so weak is the signal it delivers. And a device may be neither. But the device that manages to empower the user with virtually no learning curve is machine-beautiful.

The iPhone exemplifies this delicate balance. One day there was no iPhone; the next day there was an iPhone. And on that next day, children and elders, techies and Luddites, the deft and the daft— these were all standing around Apple Store displays and using the iPhone, with no instruction, to do things they wanted to do that they had previously been unable to do so efficiently, transparently, and enjoyably. Machine beauty.

Here, then, is a third question: why do we value technologies that are machine-beautiful?

I think it's easier to frame an answer to this question if we think about technologies in the way I recommended in my earlier post on Rodin's The Burghers of Calais:

I prefer to emphasize that technology always stands in a certain relation to the people who use it: technology is anything that amplifies what the human body can already do. A club amplifies the ability to punch. A gun amplifies the ability to throw. A telephone amplifies the ability to shout. A motor vehicle amplifies the ability to run. Clothing amplifies the protective and insulating qualities of skin. Architecture, oddly enough, is large, static, communal clothing. Telecast media amplify vision or audition. The hard drive and RAM of a computer amplify the ability to remember and to calculate. And so on.

Any technology may be understood this way, and therefore anything that acts as a force multiplier on what humans in general can already do may be construed as a technology.

If we take technology in general as any means of converting our existing capabilities into superpowers, then the appeal of a machine-beautiful device is immediately apparent: the power of the device makes us harder, better, faster, stronger, and the simplicity of the device spares us from having to think too much about the device itself. The technology is a nearly transparent biomodification that empowers us to do with facility from now on what we could do only at great pains before.

The distinctive contribution of Steve Jobs, as I see it, is that he created a post-now class of consumer citizens: the Cybourgeoisie.

But will it sell?

Vincent van Gogh, early portrait

From Vincent van Gogh we have over 900 paintings as well as over 1000 drawings.

He made nearly all of them during the final five years of his life. 365 times 5 would be just over 1800 days for those 900 paintings. Let's call it a painting every other day for half a decade.

How many did the aspiring artist with connections to the art market sell? None.

Comes now the news that beneath a quickly executed "Patch of Grass" reminiscent only in the most generic way of Dürer's Great Piece of Turf, some helpful particle-accelerated synchrotronic X-rays have revealed what was known to be there (thanks to infrared reflectography), but had previously not been seen: an early portrait, from Vincent's days as an evangelist among the coal miners.

This won't change our conception of the artist much, unless it be with regard to his second thoughts, but it's nice to see further confirmation of his early stylistic tropes.