Tag Archives: technology

Piece of the Action: The crazy engineering of the piano key

Playing the piano is damnably hard. I have accepted that I will never practice consistently or wisely enough to reach my original wildly unrealistic goals of competence and am contenting myself with slow progress and occasional discoveries.   Coaxing a good sound requires talent, coordination, flexibility, and freedom of movement.  There’s nothing that can be done about the first item but occasionally something in the joints unsticks enabling a small improvement in the rest.   I feel kinship with weekend athletes who get that occasional moment of grace amid hours of futility.

One of the many frustrations is pressing a key in the same place with the same pressure five times in a row and hearing no sound two of those times.  The hammer misses the strings by a fraction of a millimeter and flops back with a click and a dull thud.  This makes any kind of phrasing next to impossible for the duffer.  He either settles for good enough or goes nuts trying to adapt as the instrument itself changes with the time of day and the weather.  It never bothers the professionals who figure it out on the fly.

The piano action itself is a bizarre marvel of wood, felt, physics, and prayer.  It is surprising that it works at all and there are eighty eight of the bloody things that have to work consistently.  It is a lot to ask, perhaps too much.  Robert Grijalva of the University of Michigan explains it in painstaking detail  using a model of his own invention.  For those with less time, a Dutch animator posting as Hoe Ishetmoegelijk (hoe is het moegelijk = how is it possible) has a concise summary.

Youtube Channel: Robert Grijalva

Youtube Channel: Hoe Ishetmoegelijk

Machineries of Gioia: A Poet Laureate on Ray Bradbury

Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.
Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury

I’ve read a lot of Bradbury recently, that is to the extent that I can focus long enough to read much of anything. The Illustrated Man was better than the The Illustrated Woman contained in the uniformly depressing Machineries of Joy which I am struggling to finish. There can be no question though that The Martian Chronicles deserves the accolades and adaptations.

I struggle with Bradbury’s categorization as a science fiction writer. Chronicles aside, he is a breed apart from Asimov and Clarke who briskly get down to business peddling a bright future for one and all enabled by the latest in vacuum tubes and servomotors. Bradbury doesn’t fit that mold and through his thick glasses he saw a grimy  future broken by the ones who people it. He is lyrical, almost to excess in fact, and it takes a special frame of mind to deal with his unusual rhythms and devices. His observations on technology are profoundly gloomy.   Not for him the boundless optimism and things coming out well in the wash. Long before Sputnik, Gagarin, or their American counterparts, he saw that a future world, a spacefaring one, would eventually have to send the worst of the species after the best had paved the way. The Chronicles are full of careerists, louts, and brutes going not to explore but to exploit.

In recognition of the Bradbury centennial,  Hawthorne expat and recent state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia speaks to Bradbury’s wide and ongoing cultural impact in dialogue with his biographer. The discussion does locate Bradbury firmly as a Los Angeles writer, a thing that still surprises many as that which does not, can not, or at least ought not to exist in the heart of the entertainment industry.  Gioia acknowledges that “major mainstream journals published [Bradbury’s] fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV.” He leaves out the stage apart from a brief mention in another list and more’s the pity. The lyricism, the elegiac odes to humanity’s perpetual folly  is what allowed the Pandemonium Theatre Company to bring so many of those stories to life with humans speaking to humans and not through effects in post-production.   Pandemonium was another Bradbury creation nurtured by others until its demise in the early 2000s. The Falcon hosted an uneven Fahrenheit 451 in 2002 with other, more successful productions at Theatre West and the lovely yet now defunct Court Theatre. He often appeared in the audience and, when asked, would say a few words before curtain to an appreciative audience sufficiently steeped in LA etiquette to applaud yet keep a respectful distance.

It is trivial to hang present day realities on deceased authors but there is no doubt that it is the pessimistic futures Bradbury foresaw decades ago that have played out and not those of his compatriots. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter, we aren’t in control of our robots, and ubiquitous telecommunications has served to narrow, divide, and power the slide into darkness.  We are the same desperate creatures that came out of the caves only with flashier and deadlier toys.

Here are two sobering stories adapted in 1950 for the Dimension X radio series.

Youtube Channel: Old Time Radio Researchers

 

Backyard history: Southern California’s impact on astronomy

Silicon Valley has reshaped the earth, Hollywood has driven our perceptions of it, and not always for the better.  Less well known is the outsized role California has played in understanding our universe.   Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar, and their astronomers have had a Copernican impact on where we stand in the grand scheme of things.  The word ‘vision’ gets bandied about a lot these days but George Ellery Hale had it in spades.  Here’s how the two observatories that housed Hubble, Humason, ShapleyZwicky, Baade, Rubin, and Schmidt came to be.

The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm.  The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast.  The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.

Youtube Channel: Palomar Observatory

Youtube Channel: Irish Astronomy

Youtube Channel: Corning Museum of Glass

 

Fella of the Royal Society: Q&A with Keith Moore

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library
— J.L. Borges

No, I haven’t read any Borges but this is one of those quotes that is very popular with my ilk.  But, libraries are indeed wonderful things and I remember hanging out a lot – and later volunteering – at the old Albany (California) Public Library on Solano Avenue in the late 1970s.  Don’t look for it there now, it is a youth center affiliated with the YMCA.  I spent as much time at the Doe and Bancroft as any science major at Cal could.  The specialty books and journals were in Hildebrand Hall but the atmosphere in the general purpose stacks was unbeatable.  The Internet has obliterated what little attention span I once had so sitting down and reading a physical book is next to impossible and yet the lure, the promise, and the perfume of endless shelves of books is still strong.

“Objectivity” is one of Brady Haran‘s strongest and most addicting channels.  Most of the episodes are filmed at the Royal Society‘s Library in London and feature Keith Moore, the hypnotic and wildly popular head librarian who pulls from a bottomless collection of manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, and  instruments from Newton to the present.  The Brits were pieces of work for several hundred years but there can be no denying that they made a few positive contributions to somewhat offset their spherical bastardy.

Visiting the Society’s collections may just be sufficient to deal with the rigors of travel in whatever a post-COVID landscape may look like as well as London’s notoriously high prices.

Enjoy the long-requested Q&A with The Man which includes a very candid answer to a probing viewer question.  Be sure to check out the rest of the channel – some selections below.

Youtube Channel: Objectivity

Spectral response: The science and emotion of color

The web’s archive of older industrial films is a recurring delight.  Jam Handy, Coronet, and other firms crafted these with an attention to detail, calm explanation, and rigorous science that is harder(*) to find today when most equivalents are about sales rather than fundamentals.  Jeff Quitney has uploaded a wonderful 1954 cleaned-up film to his Vimeo page on color theory and practice by the Interchemical Corporation.  It begins with the importance of color to society – especially in packaging goods and people – and then gives a marvelous account of the optics involved.   I’ve worked in the field for years but I learned to see things (pun intended) differently thanks to it.

The second film from 2016 looks at color in packaging through its emotional impact and its influence on design and designers.  ‘Color In Sight’  resembles like Hustwit’s ‘Helvetica.’  A number of prominent designers talk about how they use and think about color in order to evoke a response, surface a memory, or reveal a part of the spectrum to the color-blind.   I have no idea what I’d say to a nail-polish maker but Suzi Weiss-Fischmann (8m18s in) comes off  as a fun seatmate on a long plane trip.  I had a similar feeling about  Helvetica’s Paula Scher.   Interestingly, it is produced by TeaLeaves, a Canadian company specializing in very high-end teas for hotels.  Judging by their Youtube page, they must spend a fortune on short films – many of which have little outward bearing on their products.  I’ve never understood the appeal of tea but the videos are well worth a look.

(*) But not impossible by any means.

Vimeo Channel: Jeff Quitney

 

Youtube Channel: TeaLeaves

 

Proposing a Toaster: Technology Connections on a Sunbeam classic

I’ve owned and/or used many toasters and toaster ovens.  All have been crap.  It doesn’t matter how much it costs, it all comes from some noname as cheap as possible factory, doesn’t work as advertised, and falls apart quickly after making marginal at best toast.   Paying for quality is no longer an option. Alec from Technology Connections profiles a 1948 Sunbeam classic that still works due to a brilliant, timeless design.   His channel and Techmoan both delve deeply into our electromechanical past finding, explaining, and often resurrecting devices we’ve forgotten.

Youtube Channel: Technology Connections

He even offers a video on his second channel that shows how to fix and update one of these from the second-hand market.  Tempting, tempting.

Youtube Channel: Technology Connections 2

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age: In praise of chalk

Modern ejumacation has gone multimedia and Powerpoint, often multimedia within Powerpoint.  Some like 3Blue1Brown are brilliant at it (the multimedia, not Powepoint), others less so.  Here’s a random assortment of lectures where good old chalk and boards prevail: E&M from IIT Madras, chemistry and cryptography from Ruhr Universität, Bochum, Fields Medalist Cédric Villani on something-or-the-other, and an early calm-for-him presentation by Jens Fehlau on the Leibniz integration rule made famous by Feynman.  Finally, a tribute to a popular chalk, recently discontinued.

Youtube Channel: nptelhrd

 

Youtube channel: ChemieRub

 

Youtube channel: Introduction to Cryptography by Christof Paar

Youtube channel: Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS)

Youtube channel: Flammable Maths

Youtube channel: Great Big Story

 

Dicta Prius: Redondo Beach’s Hybrid History

Page 1 of TRW’s Hybrid Engine patent, submitted on 17 March 1969 and issued 2 March 1971 (Click to enlarge)

It has been fifty years since a group of engineers submitted what would become United States Patent 3566717. Entitled “Power train using multiple power sources,” Baruch Berman, George Gelb, Neil Richardson, and Tsih Wang of then-TRW in still Redondo Beach described the hybrid gas/electric vehicle. As a satisfied Prius owner since 2012 and likely repeat customer, I only recently learned that the core engine technology was invented a mile from my house and possibly yards from my office.

In those seven years of hybrid ownership, I’ve often wondered what actually goes on under the hood.  Niels Blaauw offers a charming overview of older implementations of the engine and drivetrain.  Next, Professor John Kelly of Weber State University dives deeply into the innards of the transaxle that’s in my generation of Prius.   His WeberAuto channel is a gearhead’s goldmine.

Youtube Channel: Niels Blaauw 

Youtube Channel: Weber Auto

 

Photo Chemistry: The silver behind the silver screen

We have megapixel cameras in our phones and gigapixel cameras on our telescopes.  Before digital took over photography (and the world,) we had film.  Light struck silver and made a mark and behind it all was some marvelous physical chemistry.  It is still awe-inspiring to think of how these processes came about when knowledge and instrumentation were not nearly as advanced as today.  Each step could have millions of alternatives and sorting them through brute force would take the age of the universe.  Yet somehow it all came together and spawned industries.  The American Chemical Society takes us through the science as it was in 1940.

Vimeo Channel: Jeff Quitney

Horizon Event: The big EHT reveal

The Event Horizon Telescope team announces its major discovery following two intense and quiet years of data analysis on top of a longer period of development.   A nice testament to aperture synthesis and international collaboration as the rest of the world spirals into madness.  Damn!!!

Youtube Channel: National Science Foundation

Context for the interested public:
Youtube Channel: Sixty Symbols