mm500: Blast from the Past! No. 54 – Edison vs. Tesla

September 22, 2008
© Kandasamy M  | Dreamstime.com

© Kandasamy M | Dreamstime.com

First day back at work after a bereavement leave, and we’re still not ready for the world of blogging.

Nevertheless, we’re all about doing the right thing here at Left-Handed Complement, and in that spirit we’re recycling some of our favorite electrons. And with over 470 fresh daily posts in the past 16+ months, there’s lots to choose from.

I hereby stop apologizing for resuming our observance of the prime directive of blogging: Thou Shalt Blog Daily!

And I’m guessing that most of you weren’t here nine months ago. As one of my favorite paper publications used to say as they flogged unsold back issues: “If you haven’t read it yet, it’s new for you!”

lhc76019043_thumb24_thumb2_thumb2_th

Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

Originally posted November 16, 2007, titled “mm195: Edison gets the glory — Tesla won the war.”

MUDGE’S Musings

Every schoolchild, at least of MUDGE‘s generation, knew the name of Thomas Edison, America’s genius inventor. Not nearly so well known today is the reputation of Nikola Tesla, whose alternating current technology offered stiff competition to Edison’s direct current at the time when the nascent electric utilities were battling for the privilege of revolutionizing civilization.

That first battle ground, New York City, finally just yesterday, November 14 2007, after 125 years of service, converted the last direct current electricity service to alternating current.

Can you imagine any industrial artifact built today still being around in the year 2132, 125 years from now? We just don’t think that way any more. Ask the survivors and grieving families of those lost when the I-35 bridge at Minneapolis collapsed this past summer, at the youthful age of 40.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm489: Blast from the Past! No. 46 – Abolish the Air Force

September 4, 2008
© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

MUDGE’S Musings

Events, continue to conspire, making it unacceptably late to start a fresh project, but hey, recycling is IN, right? We’re all about doing the right thing here at Left-Handed Complement, and in that spirit we’re recycling some of yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s favorite electrons.

I hereby stop apologizing for observing the prime directive of blogging: Thou Shalt Blog Daily!

And, I’m guessing that most of you weren’t here nine months ago. As one of my favorite paper publications used to say as they flogged unsold back issues: “If you haven’t read it yet, it’s new for you!”

lhc76019043_thumb24_thumb2_thumb2_th[2]

Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last fall, and always in season, especially since it’s back to school time for millions, originally posted November 2, 2007, and titled “mm183: Abolish the Air Force.”

MUDGE’S Musings

From the “If it’s the weekend, it must be military” department, we bring you this fascinating analysis from The American Prospect.

Was sent this earlier today by MUDGE‘s ex-Navy son, who was interested, as is his parent, not due to his parochial leanings toward the maritime forces, but rather due to his interest in history, especially military history.

And the thesis here is based, not only on the present straitened circumstances in which the U.S. Air Force finds itself, fighting in conflicts using techniques in which it has little interest, and causing as a result inexcusable amounts of what is delicately called collateral damage.

No, the analysis expertly recounts the troubled history of the Air Force, built from the first on a flawed premise: the value of strategic bombing.

americanprospect

Abolish the Air Force

What it does on its own — strategic bombing — isn’t suited to modern warfare. What it does well — its tactical support missions — could be better managed by the Army and Navy. It’s time to break up the Air Force.

Robert Farley | November 1, 2007

In August of this year, reports emerged that British Army officers in Afghanistan had requested an end to American airstrikes in Helmand Province because the strikes were killing too many civilians there. In Iraq, the Lancet Study of Iraqi civilian casualties of the war suggested that airstrikes have been responsible for roughly 13 percent of those casualties, or somewhere in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 deaths.

This watershed comes at a particularly important time, as the Air Force observed its 60th anniversary this past September.

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mm361: Gin, television, Web 2.0

April 27, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

Ever have one of those moments? You know, the ones where you read or see something that just simply closes a loop in your mind that you didn’t know was open? Where you (one hopes, figuratively) slap yourself on the face and say (one fervently hopes, subvocally): Wow, I wish I thought of that?

Had one of those today.

I’m a history of technology guy; I even alluded very briefly to that a couple of posts ago (featuring one of yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s favorite headlines, if I may be so unhumble to say so!).

So, I enjoy taking a global, macro view of technology, and how it shaped the story of civilization (technology = civilization — can’t have the latter without the former). And I also enjoy making connections.

So, my attention was captured today by the first paragraph of this post, found during typical stream-of-consciousness blogging today.

So, I read on, and the connections and insights about technology and where it’s taking us, and why it’s taking us there, were jaw-dropping.

See, I’ve often said (once, here) that one of the things I really like about this blogging mania obsession habit of mine is that after more than 15 years of consuming the Internet, now, in my infinitesimal, nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© way, I’m now contributing.

And, that’s the point:

herecomeseverybody

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

By Clay Shirky on April 26, 2008 10:48 AM

I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm359: The Navy’s ferry tale — unhappy ever after

April 25, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

The U.S. Navy has long been a favorite subject for yr (justifiably) humble svt, long before he became your svt, quite long before.

The elemental battles of men against the implacably overwhelming forces of nature, while simultaneously battling to the death a human enemy, has always captured the imagination.

Lord Nelson at Trafalgar; Monitor going where no ship had gone before (thus tweaking our simultaneous lifelong interest in the history of technology ); Morison’s epic of the U.S. Navy in the four years of its Second World War: all these read as a kid, reread as an adult, and by the by, picked up by my older son, perhaps pointing him toward his own Navy career.

Now, that’s a cautionary tale! Parents! Be careful what reading material you leave around for your kids to find! Or, maybe, turn off the TV and read a book or two — you are influential beyond your ken.

Faithful reader might recall a couple of recent posts with the Navy as the theme (here and here).

In these unfortunate times of general governmental ineptitude, cultivated by an administration that consistently over-controls what should be left alone (found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq yet?), and leaves alone too many negligible details (such as: armor for Humvee personnel carriers!), why should the Navy be left out?

nytimes

Lesson on How Not to Build a Navy Ship

By PHILIP TAUBMAN | Published: April 25, 2008

With the crack of a Champagne bottle against its bow, the newly minted Navy warship, bedecked with bunting, slid sideways into the Menominee River in Wisconsin with a titanic splash.

Moments before the launching on Sept. 23, 2006, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chief of naval operations, told the festive crowd of shipbuilders, politicians and Navy brass assembled at the Marinette Marine shipyard, “Just a little more than three years ago, she was just an idea; now Freedom stands before us.”

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mm228: Toothpicks — Good to great to gone

December 20, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

We journey from the future: nanotechnology (mm227) directly to the past and our stomach-churning present.

Thanks to the always wonderful (and never consulted sufficiently) Arts & Letters Daily, we were directed to an entertaining article in a(n embarrassingly) new to this writer publication, The American, detailing the history of the lowly, unglamorous toothpick.

Faithful reader may recall that the history of technology is one of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s abiding interests, but I had never paid much attention to the toothpick in any way, much less thought about its origins and provenance. Turns out to be most fascinating, and highlights what was absolutely world-beating about American inventiveness and marketing prowess. And lowlights what is manifestly frightening about what’s happened to factories and their well paid jobs in the past 40 years.

theamerican

The Glorious Toothpick

By Henry Petroski From the November/December 2007 Issue

Filed under: Culture, Lifestyle, Public Square

The humble mass-produced toothpick is a paradigm for American manufacturing: inspiration, invention, marketing, trade, success, and failure. HENRY PETROSKI explains.

Image credit: photograph by Geoff Spear.

Glorious ToothpickThe plain wooden toothpick is among the sim­plest of manufactured things. It consists of a single part, made of a single material, and is intended for a single purpose, from which it takes its name. But simple things do not necessarily come easily, and the story of the mass-produced toothpick is one of preparation, inspiration, invention, marketing, competition, success and failure in a global econ­omy, and changing social customs and cultural values. In short, the story of the toothpick is a par­adigm for American manufacturing.

Early wooden toothpicks were found objects, each fashioned ad hoc from a broken twig or stalk with a pointed end. Often, the other end of the twig was chewed until its fibers separated to form a primitive toothbrush called a chew-stick. Some cultures, like the Japanese, developed rigid rules about how such sticks were held and used.

In medieval Portugal, a cottage industry developed to produce straightforward hand­made toothpicks, and these splints of orange­wood gained a reputation for being the best in the world. Toothpicks made in the Portuguese tra­dition were common in Brazil in the mid-19th century when Charles Forster, an American work­ing in the import-export trade, found them being crafted and used by natives there. It was a time when the manufacture of just about everything was becoming mechanized in America, and Forster believed that toothpicks could be mass-produced in New England at a cost that would allow them even to be exported to Brazil and compete with the handmade kind.

Not a mechanic, Forster found an inventive genius in Boston who was mechanizing the manufacture of shoes, which used wooden pegs that the inventor had created machinery to produce. Forster envisioned that the peg machine could be modified to manufacture toothpicks.

Once his machinery was producing toothpicks by the wagonload, he needed to sell them. He built a market in Boston (where folks were accustomed to whittling their picks themselves) by sending out paid shills to demand them at general stores, or dine at restaurants and then ask for a toothpick, which of course the stores and restaurants never thought to stock. Then Forster would come along, with inexpensive smooth, uniform toothpicks for sale. From Boston, the use of cheap machine-made toothpicks very quickly became an artifact of American culture.

The Glorious Toothpick — The American, A Magazine of Ideas

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Toothpicks are no longer manufactured in Maine; some comparative few in Minnesota (still a few trees there, one supposes) but mostly now in China and Southeast Asia, from inferior wood, although you still can find them with the Forster brand. But the use of toothpicks has declined in most Western cultures, as awareness of better tools for dental health has become widespread.

The toothpick is emblematic of the cataclysmic changes this country is realizing, as the manufacture of all types of products, sophisticated big screen high definition televisions as well as toothpicks, have rapidly moved offshore toward cheap labor. Now the big business in many small towns is the local state prison, which fill to overflowing with petty drug users serving federally mandated terms all out of proportion to the nature of the crime. Ugh.

And the shells of those old factories, that once cut and sewed cloth for America’s apparel; that once cut and scored cardboard to make the boxes that shipped the dresses; that once housed the machine tools that forged the machinery that once populated all of those factories: the rehabilitated shells of those old factories deep in the hearts of our big cities and small, are now the trendy loft homes of the young and trendy.

Lately of course, due to the communications and information revolution largely invented and financed here, and whose growth was fertilized through creative marketing here, even service jobs are migrating toward increasingly sophisticated yet in Western terms low priced centers like Bengaluru and Manila.

Which brings us back to nanotechnology, and other technology of the future. Get busy, engineering and scientific and financial and marketing geniuses, ’cause we can’t afford those 65-inch big screens and those $5,000 per month loft leases on a McDonald’s paycheck.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm224: Dec. 17, 1903: A seminal date in world history

December 17, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

MUDGE grew up at a time when everyone knew who the Wright Brothers were. Indeed, I believe that the one who survived beyond 1912 actually died the year I was born. And I just looked it up — Orville died exactly nine days after I was born, at the age of 76.

I’m wondering how many people care anymore that the first flight ever anywhere of a heavier than air powered airplane was made in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on Dec. 17, 1903, 104 years ago today.

I’ve been thinking about it all month, like I have every December since I was about eight years old.

Does anyone remember Landmark Books? I think I may still have some of those left from my childhood somewhere in the dungeon below the house, together with others picked up second hand for the next generation of MUDGElets.

Thanks to Google (where else?) found an interesting page on a site I’d never encountered before, Valerie’s Living Books with this description:

Landmark Books (American history) and World Landmarks (world history) are accurate, in-depth stories for young people nine to fifteen years old. These living histories were written by award-winning authors or by men and women who experienced the events first-hand. Written during the 1950’s and 60’s and illustrated either with two-color drawings or clear photographs, the books are informative, enjoyable, and well worth collecting and reading.

Reading level and content vary from book to book. Some are relatively simply written and are very appropriate for middle to upper elementary children. Other books, because their reading level is higher and the subjects they cover require a mature reader, may be best suited for young adults.

Explanation for the digression: I first learned about the Wright Brothers and their amazing achievement from one of the Landmark Books, “The Wright Brothers, Pioneers of American Aviation,” by Quentin Reynolds; I read and reread it countless times. What a tremendous inspiration. And what a terrific series of books, on so many fascinating and important topics.

Ironically, Valerie’s did not have a copy to show you, so I went to my trusty old/rare books destination, Alibris, for this:

wrightbros

Don’t remember the dust jacket, but this hardbound book and many others in the series were in aggregate one of the pillars of my childhood.

In this age of videogames and Nickelodeon, a parent could do worse than to find some Landmarks at a local used book emporium, or Valerie’s or Alibris, and put them in the way of your 8-14 year olds. A world full of important people, events and things existed for several billion years before they were born; they could get a clue…

Okay, though, back to the Wright Brothers. So, I always think about the first powered flight around this time and date; was even noodling around thinking that it might be a topical lead-in to a further discussion of one of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s current concentrations, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles — we’ll get to it another day, thanks), when I encountered this story today at Wired.com.

Dec. 17, 1935: First Flight of the DC-3, Soon to Be an Aviation Legend

By Tony Long  | 12.17.07 | 12:00 AM

A Douglas DC-3 shown in flight.  | Photo: Corbis

1935: The Douglas DC-3 makes its maiden flight at Clover Field in Santa Monica, California. Despite a production history lasting only 11 years, it will become one of the most durable, long-lived and beloved aircraft of all time.

While it may be a legendary plane today, the Douglas Aircraft Company wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about getting the DC-3 off the ground. The impetus came from American Airlines, which wanted a plane that could provide sleeper berths for 14 passengers.

So if Orville and Wilbur were inspirations of my childhood, so then the Douglas DC-3 was an icon of that time also.

For they were still around when I first began looking up in the sky in the early 1950s; I dimly remember flying in one somewhere (or maybe I just hope I so remember! — I flew in piston-powered airliners several times in my youth), and during my childhood built more than one plastic scale model of that aircraft.

And Wired told me something I didn’t know:

The first DC-3 flew Dec. 17, 1935, 32 years to the day after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was a good omen for an extraordinarily good plane. The DC-3 entered commercial service flying coast to coast, with an overnight stop, across the United States.

Talk about synchrony…

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Dec. 17, 1935: First Flight of the DC-3, Soon to Be an Aviation Legend

How absolutely, astonishingly, completely the world changed after December 17, 1903. Not quickly, at first. The Wright’s motorized, manned kite only flew 120-feet, less than the wingspan of many modern aircraft and, secretive and paranoid perhaps, the brothers took their time getting out the word, enough so that there were challenges through the years for the unprecedentedness of the achievement.

But then, men and women took to the air, eventually outer space, and the planet simultaneously grew smaller and larger as a result.

All because a couple of bicycle mechanics in the town of Dayton, Ohio read everything they could on the subject of heavier than air flight, thought they could do it better than the lavishly funded formal scientists of the day, applied their self-taught mechanical skills and creative problem solving abilities, including finding a safe but out of the way venue for their experiments, and, somehow, leaped into the sky.

The U.S. Air Force has an amazing museum of flight at Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, the site honoring, of course, Wilbur and Orville. (By the way, if you and your kids have any interest in the subject, you can easily spend an amazing day wandering around more than 300 aircraft. Been there, with my then-17-year-old son; we opened the museum one Sunday morning, and closed it that evening. And, free admission! Thanks, taxpayers!)

Kitty Hawk, an otherwise unremarkable bunch of sand dunes, is memorialized by a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, (USS Kitty Hawk CV-63) the second to carry the illustrious name, soon to be decommissioned and in the news recently when the Chinese government turned it away from a ceremonial Thanksgiving visit to Hong Kong, and then objected when it transited back to home port at Yokosuka, Japan (been there! gaped at that huge ship there!) by way of the Taiwan Strait.

kittyhawk

Finally, while we’re showing useful photos, have to share this one, the magnificent capture of that first flight, that first day of the current era of manned flight, from Wikimedia Commons.

wrightfirstflight

A stunning portrait of a stunning, global civilization altering day.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

Note!: the links to Valerie’s Living Books, and Alibris used above is for the convenience of faithful reader and represents no commercial relationship whatsoever. Left-Handed Complement should be so fortunate as to ever collect remuneration of any kind for this endeavor. I can link, so I link. It’s technology. It’s cool. It’s an artifact of Sequitur Service©. Deal with it.


mm198: GM foods — Wrongheaded opposition is starving the developing world

November 18, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Prospect magazine of the UK has a compelling piece, from the European viewpoint on genetically modified food and its wrongheaded opposition.

prospectuk

The real GM food scandal

by Dick Taverne

GM foods are safe, healthy and essential if we ever want to achieve decent living standards for the world’s growing population. Misplaced moralising about them in the west is costing millions of lives in poor countries

Dick Taverne is the author of The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism (OUP)

Seven years ago, Time magazine featured the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus on its cover. As the principal creator of genetically modified rice—or “golden rice”—he was hailed as potentially one of mankind’s great benefactors. Golden rice was to be the start of a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It would help remedy vitamin A deficiency, the cause of 1-2m deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. It was the flagship of plant biotechnology. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent times held out greater promise.

Seven years later, the most optimistic forecast is that it will take another five or six years before golden rice is grown commercially. The realisation of Potrykus’s dream keeps receding. The promised benefits from other GM crops that should reduce hunger and disease have been equally elusive. GM crops should now be growing in areas where no crops can grow: drought-resistant crops in arid soil and salt-resistant crops in soil of high salinity. Plant-based oral vaccines should now be saving millions of deaths from diarrhoea and hepatitis B; they can be ingested in orange juice, bananas or tomatoes, avoiding the need for injection and for trained staff to administer them and refrigeration to store them.

Your correspondent has long been more aware of this complex issue than the average blogger on the street. Some years ago, MUDGE logged a five-year stint at a science-based organization whose parent was one of the foremost corporate proponents of this world-changing technology. Indeed, I probably would be there still, had not the forces of creative destruction, i.e., capitalism, broken up that good old gang of mine through “merger” and acquisition.

Proximity to the technology, and a modicum of intellectual curiosity resulted in slightly more than superficial awareness of the issue and its controversies. And the controversy has been noisy enough to make one believe that distribution of such technology has been suppressed. But,

Seldom has public perception been more out of line with the facts. The public in Britain and Europe seems unaware of the astonishing success of GM crops in the rest of the world. No new agricultural technology in recent times has spread faster and more widely. Only a decade after their commercial introduction, GM crops are now cultivated in 22 countries on over 100m hectares (an area more than four times the size of Britain) by over 10m farmers, of whom 9m are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, mainly India and China. Most of these small-scale farmers grow pest-resistant GM cotton. In India alone, production tripled last year to over 3.6m hectares. This cotton benefits farmers because it reduces the need for insecticides, thereby increasing their income and also improving their health. It is true that the promised development of staple GM food crops for the developing world has been delayed, but this is not because of technical flaws. It is principally because GM crops, unlike conventional crops, must overcome costly, time-consuming and unnecessary regulatory obstacles before they can be licensed.

And the demonizing of GM technology has no foundation in science.

The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world’s leading experts—the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue—has confirmed this. Independent inquiries have found that the risk from GM crops is no greater than that from conventionally grown crops that do not have to undergo such testing. In 2001, the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself—not by private industry—conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or to the environment.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

‘The real GM food scandal’, Prospect Magazine issue 140 November 2007 – Printer Friendly Article

In the analysis considered here, the thesis is proposed that the large agribusinesses planted the seeds, as it were, of their own difficulties promoting this technology due to their own public-relations (rather than science) based caution.

And MUDGE remembers distinctly the emotional and distracting case of the supposed endangerment of monarch butterflies due to GM corn.

And what has always grabbed this non-scientist observer is that, throughout the history of agriculture (which encompasses the development of modern humankind) farmers have cross-bred and otherwise genetically modified their crops. What modern technology offers the process is predictability and repeatability.

So, as we hope you’ve taken the trouble to read to the end, the author expresses some hope that people are finally coming to their senses regarding the issue of GM crops.

There can be little doubt that GM crops will be accepted worldwide in time, even in Europe. But in delaying cultivation, the anti-GM lobbies have exacted a heavy price. Their opposition has undermined agrobusiness in Europe and has driven abroad much research into plant biotechnology—an area in which Britain formerly excelled. Over-regulation may well cause the costs of the technology to remain higher than they need be. Above all, delay has caused the needless loss of millions of lives in the developing world. These lobbies and their friends in the organic movement have much to answer for.

So, once again, seemingly well-informed people are proven to be misinformed. Hardly shocking anymore, but very, very disturbing.

Africans and others in the developing world are starving, people! GM crops can be engineered to use less pesticide, less fertilizer, less water (the last great resource battleground), to get more, and better, food into the empty stomachs of the world.

Wake up and pay attention, you enemies of science!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE