Category Archives: Engineering

Private Screening: Bell Labs predicts the future

I saw this film in 1992 or 1993 at a screening for employees while finishing my postdoc at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I spent a little over two years there, living in lovely Chatham Township and spending Saturdays enjoying Manhattan. The lab I sat in held the original carbon dioxide laser, nearly thirty years old at the time, and still working. The transistor was invented a couple of doors away, the people who invented Unix were at the other end of a long corridor, and a few future Nobel laureates had their labs in-between. I am still amazed that I got that position and wistful that I didn’t do more with the opportunity.

There was a Q&A session with the speaker who introduced the film and who was participating in the work that underpinned this eerily accurate vision of an always-on, always-connected world. I asked if there was enough (data) bandwidth to support even a small fraction of this. It was the era of low-speed dialup modems and the Internet was limited to universities and academically-oriented labs. His answer, “I guess there will have to be.” A few forward-thinkers had the smarts to set about building that infrastructure, bit by bit. I lacked the foresight to invest even a small amount in any of them.

And so, everyday, off to work I go.

Via the AT&T Tech Channel

Industrial Chic: From when copying was new

There’s a category of Youtube channel dedicated to fixing up old mostly public-domain videos from Prelinger and similar archives and making them available to broad audiences.  Jeff Quitney is one of the best at this along with Bel99TV and PeriscopeFilm.

Here’s a little bit of 1965 techno-cool courtesy of Xerox Corporation.

From Jeff Quitney’s Youtube Channel:

Art from compromise: pyCustoms inspects Python packages

Consider technical computing.  Matlab is expensive but simple: One function per .m file – send a function inputs, get outputs.  Python’s adherents claim that it can supplant Matlab for most scientific purposes.  Reality, as usual, is more nuanced.  Since Python supports objects, classes, namespaces, and a lot of other funky features, Python tools are chock full of them.  Pick a package – numpy, scipy, matplotlib, or any of the ‘batteries included’ standard library.  It is difficult to figure out how to pass inputs to something and get outputs, assuming that thing is a function and not an object with methods, a class, a module,  or something else.  Documentation is often lacking so there will be multiple visits to StackOverflow, Usenet and Google Groups, and mailing lists.

I wrote some experimental Python spaghetti code to take a Python package, figure out which of its modules connect to which other modules, and then to recursively list each module’s builtins, classes, functions, submodules, and a bunch of stuff falling into ‘none of the above.’  I also sent the results into graphviz to visualize the results and perhaps gain some insight.  It was one compromise after another, figuring out ‘good enough’ when ‘ideal’ wasn’t convenient or  possible.  The firework-like graphviz output was fun to look at although not practically useful due to the large amount of zooming and panning needed to see details – what you see is all you’ve got.  I may use the plain text output from the pyCustoms algorithm in the future to figure out the lay of the land before studying a package in any detail.

The pyCustoms code is on Github in a Jupyter Notebook.  Here are the graphviz outputs for numpy and matplotlib.  Each image links to a PDF.  Zooming and panning works better in a standalone PDF reader than in a typical browser PDF plugin.  Right-clicking should permit downloading the files.  I normally use the Skim PDF reader for Macs but was surprised to find that Acrobat DC did a better job for these graphics intensive files.



Elbphilhamonie opens

Congratulations and Big Ups to the City of Hamburg.  Ten years after groundbreaking, the striking Elbphilharmonie opens for concerts in a hall designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and appropriate fanfare.

It’s an impressive construction project.  Partial reality and full animations below.

About halfway: Youtube channel MKTimelapse

The grand conception: Youtube channel Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

Monolith Monograph: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

A young filmmaker dives deeply in five parts into the technical and artistic innards of his (and one of my) favorite movies. One wishes that he spoke a little slower and left some breathing room in his edits but it is an earnest, meticulous, and illuminating effort. The engineering alone that went into 2001 is awe-inspiring. Did Kubrick sleep during the two years it took to make?

Via Channel CinemaTyler

Simon Ramo explains Cloud Computing

The ‘R’ behind the Thompson-Ramo-Woolridge (later TRW) corporation passed away a few months ago at age 103. Simon Ramo saw the future and made a lot of it happen in a bygone era when technical people ran corporations. Here, he explains what we currently call Cloud Computing over a lovely guitar score by Nell Hultgren of whom little, unfortunately, can be found.

Via Jeff Quitney‘s channel:

Fly US to the Moon: von Braun vs. Houbolt

To this day, the questionable Wernher von Braun gets credit for most American space accomplishments of the 1950s and 1960s. He tirelessly aimed at the stars (with the occasional drops on London) but engineering realities were at odds with his grandiose plans and even grandioser rockets. John Houbolt’s Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach eventually won out and his role in Apollo’s success is insufficiently known. Here’s a comparison.

Channel: Dan Beaumont Space Museum

Wernher von Braun explains the possibility to reach the Moon. "Man and the Moon", Dec. 28, 1955

Watch this video on YouTube.

Channel: Jeff Quitney

Project Apollo: "Lunar Orbit Rendezvous" 1968 NASA Mission Planning and Analysis Division

Watch this video on YouTube.

Distillation: What goes on in those refineries?

Big tankers tie up offshore and disgorge their contents into brightly lit and mostly inscrutable refineries.   This sixty year old film by Shell Oil neatly explains the chemistry, chemical engineering, and physics of distillation that takes gives us our gasoline, diesel, oils, and waxes. In a different setting, it also gives us many different kinds of beverages.


Voyager – The Interstellar Mission

39 years ago today, Voyager 1 took flight on its Grand Tour. It has gone farther than any other man-made object in history and won’t stop until it reaches the stars long after we and all that’s important to us are dust. Idealism wasn’t for chumps back then. Or maybe it was. JPL and NASA post the mission data from all these interplanetary missions and it is all free.

Filmmaker Santiago Menghini brings an artist’s perspective to the journey in his short film, “Voyagers.”