What was the dang deal with Charles Babbage, anyway? Crank or genius? Get the short version of the story with this review of The Difference Engine, a book about Babbage, his almost-but-not-quite marvelous machine, and how they actually built a genuine working version in the 21st century.
I’m listening to some tapes by Robert Greenberg (available from the Teaching Company) on the history of music. They’re very entertaining… I hadn’t realized, for example, how significant opera was in the development of many other musical forms like oratorio and sonata form. Then I remembered that there was somebody else I had heard on the radio who gave talks called “What makes it so great?” But who? Was it Greenberg? One quick visit to Google later, I learned that it’s Robert Kapilow, another clever and inspirational music geek. Listen to him wax rhapsodic about Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow on NPR’s Performance Today.
PC Forum organizer Esther Dyson has some choice words about blogging during conference talks at the PC Forum. The big idea is that people can use a Wi-Fi network to blog about a talk in real time to the whole world. What does this mean? Esther says: “In some sense, the power of the conference moderator is reduced. Bloggers can add their own value … and they can relay their version from inside the tent to those outside the tent and out of the organizer’s control.” It’s easy to see that A) this will make a lot of people uncomfortable, and B) it can’t be stopped.
The last conference I went to (O’Reilly Bioinformatics in Tucson) people were typing away the whole time all over the audience. But every time I got close enough to peek, they were doing something completely unrelated to the talk: idly surfing the web, writing and compiling code, or playing solitaire. High tech doodling. Tappity-tap tap tap.
From BoingBoing I found this cool pointer to the DOE Photo Library of atmospheric nuclear tests. I find these pictures utterly mesmerizing. I am can’t stop wondering about what it must have been like to witness some of these big boys. The atmospheric H-bomb shots in the Pacific are the creepiest of all. Consider
Castle Bravo, a dry lithium that obliterated Bikini atoll in 1954. It was fully two and a half times more powerful than expected, tipping the scales at 15 megatons. Imagine the consequences of a miscalculation like that… Witnesses on nearby naval vessels said the heat was terrifying in its intensity and persistence. “The cloud top rose and peaked at 130,000 feet (almost 40 km) after only six minutes. Eight minutes after the test the cloud had reached its full dimensions with a diameter of 100 km, a stem 7 km thick, and a cloud bottom rising above 55,000 feet (16.5 km).” Castle Bravo was the largest bomb ever exploded by the United States.
But was it the largest ever? No. That distinction goes to the “Tsar Bomba” (“King of Bombs”) which the Soviet Union exploded over Novaya Zemlya in 1961 for a yield of 50 megatons. Khruschev got the weapon he wanted, but as the FAS site says, “a bomb this size is virtually useless militarily.” Still. Ka-BOOM!
The Atlantic has another good issue this month. Besides the article on complexity and simulation, there’s a great piece by Amy Bloom on the odd plight of heterosexual cross-dressers. Among such men, there is an unusually high proportion of former Marines. Not clear why.