Saturday, January 25, 2014

Voodoo Computer Repair

I have been contemplating the nature of cats this week.  It would be hard not to in this house, for our home is overrun by a multitude of feline philosophers.  Both of them.

How can two cats continually occupy so much raw acreage in a single tract house?  On every horizontal surface there seems to be stretched out a sleeping cat, belly up, seeking warmth from a fluorescent bulb, one delicate paw placed across his eyes to protect him from the harsh reality of a covered 40 watt bulb.

I suppose there are many reasons to think about cats.  I like the way they are beholden to no one.  Any fool can earn the love of a dog (Hell!--even Hitler owned a dog that evidently worshipped him, even as Adolf fed him a cyanide capsule to test its efficacy.  If Adolf had owned a cat, the feline would have had a fighting chance at outliving the dictator.).  The love and trust of a cat must be earned.

What I have spent the better part of the last hour contemplating, however, is their capacity to learn something through experience.  As Mark Twain once put it:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid.  She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.

To call this behavior human would insult the cat.  However, it illustrates how people work with technology they dont understand.  For the last forty years, I have seen the principle applied to the functioning  of computers. 

Sooner or later, everyone's computer will not do what they want it do.  Trust me, it is nearly always not the computer malfunctioning, but some form of operator head-space error.  After punching every button on the keyboard followed by tapping on the monitor screen—suddenly, the computer produces the desired effect.  What the operator should have learned was that a little patience was required.  What the operator will "learn" is that tapping on the screen works. 

This is exactly as much, and no more, than the cat would have learned.  From now on, whenever frustrated—which is every time this person uses the computer—the first thing that will be tried is tapping on the screen.  It doesnt matter that this procedure did not work the first time (or any time thereafter)--the cat will not sit on the stove-lid.  The monitor gets tapped.  Now that I think about it, the cat might be ahead on points: the cat wouldn't get aggravated at the new technology, it would just search it for the warmest spot on which to nap.

Strangely, this behavior may possibly be hereditary.  I have observed pilots tapping on the glass cover on an aircraft fuel gauge to make sure that they are getting a true reading--something that was briefly appropriate during World War I.  If a pilot is young enough to have passed a flight physical in the last thirty years, he is far too young to have ever flown a plane in which this procedure would have worked.  This has to be the result of young pilots learning from older pilots.

My father learned to drive in the 1920's on a Model T-Ford, the automotive equivalent of that cat's hot stove-lid.  Henry Ford made 15 million of those Tin Lizzies and he put the world on wheels--but by today's standards, those cars were difficult to drive.  The car boasted a 22 horsepower motor and an automatic transmission.  The jalopy had three pedals: the left pedal was low gear, the middle pedal was reverse and right pedal was the footbrake. The hand brake worked on the back wheels and also operated the clutch. The throttle was a hand- operated lever on the steering column below the steering wheel. 

Years later, mentally at least, my father was still driving that old Model T.  Modern cars didn't have a gas pedal--they had a "foot throttle".  "Pump the foot throttle!" he would exhort every time I went to start the car.  "Give it a little gas before you start it."

The fact that the car was fuel-injected and you could have pushed that pedal through the floor boards didn't matter.  This method had worked once in 1929 and every car since had gotten it's pedals exercised prior to starting.

This is called "Voodoo Repair".  People dont try to learn how their technology works: they just want to know the proper ritual that will make the magic work.  Arthur C. Clark once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  This is why today, anyone who is even remotely competent with computers (or any other technology) is routinely called a "wizard."

Evidently, for most of the human race, we passed this point several thousand years ago when the wizards of the tribe produced fire.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Elizabeth at School

A Modern Ancient Fairy Tale

In a land a very long way from the Department of Education, there was once a tiny, little school in the middle of Dumb Fuck, East Dakota.  This was a small and old school, very far from just about anywhere.  I would give you directions, but you can't get there unless you get lost.  Twice.

While the school was very small, and everything in it was very old, the school was very modern in its teaching philosophy.  The teacher, though very young, held a prestigious graduate degree in education from the very best university.  She was determined to bring the very best in edumacation to this backward land, and she had brought an armload of standardized tests to prove it.

The desks were very old, the school library was actually smaller than it had been ten years earlier, and chalkboards were the old heavy and impossible-to-erase slate boards, but the school had recently hired its very first social worker and now had two assistant principals.  These professionals stood in the hall and said the word "pedagogy" to each other, while nodding their heads wisely.

The very best student was a little girl named Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was the best little girl in the entire school--all the mothers of the other children thought she was the best little girl in the whole world.  Every day, these mothers told their children, "Why can't you be more like Elizabeth?  She always looks so neat and clean!  And she has the very best manners!"

And it was true.  No matter when you saw Elizabeth, she was immaculate.  Her shoes were polished and her hair was brushed and she always had clean hands and her fingernails were as perfect as her manners.  Elizabeth always said, "Yes, Ma'am." and "No, Sir." and no one ever had to remind her to say "Thank you."  All the parents loved her.

Naturally, the rest of the kids at school hated her like a toothache.  

And the new teacher really loved Elizabeth.  Whenever the school had visitors, the teacher always had Elizabeth stand at the blackboard and demonstrate how to work a math problem or diagram a sentence.  Visitors were always impressed with Elizabeth and never noticed that every other kid in the class was glaring at Elizabeth through eyes that were so narrowly slitted that you couldn't tell their color.   

Sometimes, the teacher told the other parents that Elizabeth had a "Type A" personality.  Most of the other kids understood that the teacher was just too polite to finish the sentence, but everyone knew she meant "A-hole."

Naturally, Elizabeth always did her homework on time, always came to school prepared for class, always had her lunch money, and had a perfect attendance record.  No wonder the teacher loved her--and no wonder that every other kid in class hoped she had a violent accident with the pencil sharpener.  Or maybe have that mysterious ailment that the teacher always hinted at when someone ate paste.

Whenever the teacher asked a question, Elizabeth's hand shot into the air for the teacher to call on her.  About a year previously,  a young boy named Billy had also raised his hand a lot--but not any more.  For some reason the teacher and the principal had been overheard whispering about the boy who was good in math.  They had even spelled it so the kids wouldn't understand it--A-D-D, but all the kids knew how to add--and subtract, too.  Since then, Billy had started to take medicine even though he wasn't sick--he was just tired a lot now and spent a lot of time with his head down on his arms that were folded across the desk.  No one paid much attention because Billy was very quiet now.

And so it was one day, that the teacher was trying to explain a new math problem--none  of the kids in the room paid much attention, since they knew in advance that, eventually, Elizabeth would be called on to stand at the front of the room.

Sure enough, Elizabeth was called to the ancient, old chalkboard and started neatly writing the math problem on the board.  As she worked the problem, she explained what she was doing in a loud clear voice. Step by step, she worked the problem while the teacher beamed at her.  And as she finished the problem, she drew back her hand and struck the board with her chalk saying, "Forty-two!"

The chalkboard had been hanging on the wall of that little old school house for years.  The sharp whack of the chalk vibrated the board and the sheetrock screws that been holding the board all came loose at the same time.  Slowly at first, the top of the blackboard separated from the wall and begin to swing out and down, slowly at first, then gathering speed as the massive antique slate board fell on Elizabeth, crushing her to the floor.

All the kids who hadn't done their homework that day watched with wide eyes and open mouths.  All the kids with bad manners were transfixed as the board slowly descended.

Even little Billy thought--slowly--that it was his best day in school since he couldn't remember when.

It is at this point that every fairy tale is supposed to have a moral.  I could beg off, claiming that the narrator is notoriously immoral, but it turns out that this story does indeed have a moral:  There just isn't much demand for good girls, but the best ones know it pays to be bad occasionally.

NOTE.  Have you ever noticed that Elizabeth and its various diminutive forms is the very best name for a female?  Long before you actually meet the woman, you will know almost everything about her just from her name.  Elizabeth is the over-achiever who will catch fire and burn out somewhere in her mid-forties.  Betty is married with two kids and has a part-time job while she finishes raising the kids.  Beth is also married but stays home to take care of the four kids and dreams of someday perfecting her Toll House cookie recipe.  Eliza hasn't been seen since the ice flow broke up.  Betsy sews and plays the piano in church.  Liz is hot and has a charge account with Prada.  LiliBet raises Corgis.  And every single woman named Elizabeth who reads this  will think that all of the nicknames are correct--but hers.

LATER NOTE.  For Pete's sake, people!  I know three different people named Elizabeth and each of them is convinced I am talking about them.  The story is about education... not someone I know.  I guess I could make up names for these stories, but few people want to read about Bzyllrewyn.  Unless they are Welsh.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Liberator Rides Again

During World War II, a Polish refugee working with the US Army had a radical idea: the US could manufacture cheap and easy to operate handguns, then parachute drop them by the thousands into occupied Europe.  Resistance fighters in France, Greece, and Poland would be able to fight the Nazis if we could just give them simple firearms that could be used without training.

Within months, the FP-45, or Liberator pistol was designed and its production was begun.  The crude but effective pistol was made of stamped sheet metal at a low price.  A single-shot pistol, the units were produced for only $2.40 each and a half million were manufactured.  They were packaged in cardboard boxes with ten rounds of ammo, a dowel rod to push the empty casing out of the barrel to unload the weapon, and a wordless cartoon instruction sheet.

While a few thousand were actually distributed, there is no proof that the resistance ever actually used one of these pistols against the enemy.  Instead of being effective weapons, they became collectors' items.    One of these guns with the box and instruction sheet sells for over two thousand dollars today.

Why weren't they used?  Mainly because they were just not that good as a weapon.  Who would want to use an inaccurate, single-shot gun--that could not be reloaded till it was unloaded using a stick--to go up against a Nazi soldier with a real weapon?

Surprisingly, the gun is making a startling reappearance--but this time it is made of plastic.  The gun parts can be printed using a 3D printer, then assembled and fired by practically anyone.  Using small-caliber rounds, it needs almost no metal parts.  And the prospect of an unregistered gun that can pass undetected through metal detectors has Congress freaked.

Prepare yourself for the "nut" point of view.  Congress needs to relax.

First off, this is something that probably cannot be stopped.  Legislation will not make people forget how to do this.  The plans for the gun are available all over the internet and they aren't going to disappear.  I don't understand what passing laws against these guns is supposed to accomplish.  Congress shouldn't care if law-abiding citizens want them, and criminals won't care if they break the law by making them. 

While 3D printers are getting cheaper, today there are probably far more metal lathes and milling machines in private hands than these printers.  If you know how to use a lathe, you can make a much better, and just as unregistered, firearm than this plastic toy.

The new gun is also named The Liberator, in honor of the gun from World War II.  The new gun resembles the old gun, and has most of the flaws of the older gun, too: it is not terribly reliable, it is not very accurate and it is a single shot gun with a rather weak cartridge.  I wouldn't want to use this one on Nazis, myself, (or anyone else I really meant to hit and do damage to, either).

The people who came up with the plans for this gun didn't try to sell the gun, they just gave the plans away.  They posted the plans on their website, making it possible for anyone to download the blueprints for free.  And just as fast, our government got a court order shutting down the site, but not before the whole world learned it was relatively easy to make the gun.

This is reminiscent of when Charles III of Spain put censors in the Pyrenees in a futile attempt to keep the writings of Voltaire out of his kingdom.  But the people of Spain didn't need the books: the ideas of French Enlightenment  (including the concept of the government's power deriving from the people) slipped through to inspire the peasants of Spain to produce the Constitution of 1812.

Congress needs to remember the 1960's, when there was serious outcry about the availability of cheap, poorly-made handguns, commonly called Saturday Night Specials.  The guns usually used small-caliber  bullets and held relatively few rounds;  the only way you could hit the broad side of a barn with them was to be inside it with a pocket full of extra ammo.

Street gangs back then frequently made their own single-shot guns.  Called Zip Guns; quite a few were made using a car antenna as the barrel.  The guns were frequently more a danger to the person using them than to the intended victim.

Congress acted: cheaply-made small-caliber weapons were made illegal and, immediately, gangs and criminals acquired much better firearms--well-made, reliable, and accurate firearms with high-capacity magazines.   Today, If you are the victim of a violent crime, you are not less likely to be shot, you are just less likely to survive the shooting.  To Congress, this is progress.

While that World War II version of the Liberator was probably never used by the Resistance against the Nazis, the gun did have a beneficial role in the war.  The Nazi's knew of the gun, but were unsure how many of them were in the hands of ordinary Europeans.  This had an impact on troop morale and forced the Germans to alter their policy toward the citizens of conquered countries.

I think the designers of the new Liberator had exactly that in mind when they named the new gun.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Lincoln Letter

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The White House
April 16, 1861
William H. Herndon

My Dear William,

I received your letter last night and once again I thank you for the good news from home.  I assure you that there is very little in the way of good news in Washington.  I fear the worst has happened as the supply ship we sent to South Carolina has been fired upon.  There is little doubt that there will be war; this act of violence will set their resolve and like a horse that has tested the bit and found it wanting, there will be no turning them back now.

As I sit here in my office, all I can think think of is the need to find a means to save the union.  And I cannot escape the deep conviction that it was my election that precipitated this vast crisis that threatens to forever rend our great union.  My eyes constantly gaze upwards, beseeching the Almighty for the wisdom to find a path to preserve this union; but all I find is the smoke from the badly laid fire drifting along the curved molding of this oval room.

Men are preparing to march into Virginia and demonstrate that the Federal government will use force if necessary to preserve this union, yet I do not want war.  I wish with all my heart that I could fling open the door, telling the military men who wait outside my office that that there is another path, a way out of this dilemma without bloodshed.  Yet, I know of no such path.  I pray in the days to come, when we meet again, we will all have good news to share.

Yrs. Truly
A Lincoln


"Well," asked the visitor.  "What do you think?"

Professor Grumbles leaned back in his chair, thinking of exactly what to say.  His office--far from vast or even oval--was small, cramped, and filled to the overflowing with books.  He had neither a window nor a fireplace, but did have the luxury of two closets.  His office, located in Frass Hall, had originally been the tiny dorm room for two students.  When the administration of Enema U had decided it was far too tiny for students, they had repurposed the building as faculty offices.  Professor Grumbles would have preferred to have had an office with a window, but took some solace in the fact that at least his office had not been formerly one of the bathrooms--His colleague next door could still feel the remains of a drain under the thinning carpet.

"The paper appears to be of roughly the right age," said Dr. Grumbles.  "While it would have to be tested, I have no doubt that it will turn out to have been manufactured in the middle of the nineteenth century."

"Doesn't that prove this letter is genuine?  I mean, where else could you find 150-year-old paper?"

"It's actually not very hard at all.  There is a huge supply of such paper just across the street in the library.  Forgers carefully cut the fly sheets out of the front of books published at roughly the time period they desire and use the authentic paper for their creations."  As Professor Grumbles talked, he carefully refolded the letter and replaced it in back in the protective envelope.  While the old paper was the size of modern letter stationery, the visitor had wisely preserved the letter in a acid-free envelope designed for archival work.

"But this letter looks like it has been read many times--the paper is worn and well-handled.  It doesn't  look like the flat paper from the front of a book," said the visitor.

"Yes," Professor Grumbles agreed.  "There are ways to make paper look well-worn, however.  One of the favorite tricks of counterfeiters is to place the paper in a dryer with plastic poker chips and old tennis shoes, then tumble the mixture without heat."

Professor Grumbles continued,  "The brown ink looks real, but copying the pen and ink from the same time period is even easier to accomplish.  Still, I am quite certain your letter is not authentic, even though the paper probably was made during Lincoln's lifetime." 

Professor Grumbles leaned forward and handed the letter back to his visitor.  Actually, he had spotted four reasons why the letter was a forgery.  (Before reading further, how many can you find?)


"Let's start with the easiest to spot:  In Lincoln's day, the President's home was usually called the 'Executive Mansion'.  It wasn't until the early twentieth century, when President Teddy Roosevelt was in office, that the name was changed to the White House," said the professor.  "And while the house was always located on Pennsylvania Avenue, it was not until the Grant administration that a number was added to the address."

"During his term, Teddy Roosevelt added the West Wing to hold the President's office.  Prior to that, presidents used several different rooms in White House as offices; frequently, it  was the large oval-shaped room above the Blue Room.  Lincoln, however, used a rectangular room on the second floor as his office."

"In addition, your letter is the same size as modern letter paper: 8.5 x 11 inches--a size that was not used until about the time of the First World War.  It became a standard for use in  typewriters--something the White House did not possess until Lincoln had been dead for twenty years.  And it was not made the standard size for government letters until the presidency of Ronald Reagan."  Professor Grumbles smiled apologetically at his guest.

"I'm sorry, but the letter cannot possibly be genuine." said the professor.

"I paid good money for this!  What am I supposed to do now?" asked the visitor.

Professor Grumbles smiled at his visitor.  "Well, it is up to you, but I would contact one of the better auction houses--say, Sotheby's in New York.  I'm not sure what this letter is worth, but I'm sure it is quite valuable.  This is undoubtedly a Joseph Cosey forgery.  Cosey was the alias used by the renowned forger, Martin Coneely.  He was famous for forging the works of Lincoln, Twain, and Thomas Jefferson.  Both the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library have permanent collections of his work.  Judging by that last line, 'Yrs. Truly", I would say that it is one of his early works."

"What?  The letter is really worth something?" the visitor asked.

"Oh yes.  Probably more than if it were actually written by Lincoln."