Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Art of Programming, The Programming of Art

I don't think you will find many practicing computer programmers who will argue against the job being a creative discipline. And like any creative field, you have craftsmen and you have artists. As an 8 to 5 work-a-day programmer I consider myself firmly in the former camp, but once upon a time I had aspirations toward the latter.

My interest in computer graphics probably dates back to the Atari 2600 game machine, but it was firmly planted by brushes with the culture surrounding the Commodore 64 computer. In 1993, just as I was starting my formal training in computer science, I read an article in Computer Gaming World magazine about the demo scene. It introduced me to the works of a group called the Future Crew. The Internet, just beginning to break into the mainstream, gave me the means to download the group's Unreal and Second Reality demos over my 2400 bps modem onto the first PC I ever owned. They look downright primitive now, but back then, they blew my mind.

The demo scene was, and remains, all about demonstrating your skills. Skill with music and design are required for members of a demo group, but above all, demos are about programming. Both the art of programming and the programming of art. Small, fast code that can produce effects years ahead of their times is the grail of the demo coder. Demos strive to do in real time what it should have taken an expensive rendering package hours or days to generate or to cram megabytes of object generation into a space one tenth the size it should have been. If there's a better synthesis of the hubris of the teenage-to-college years and the obsessiveness that all programmers seem to have to some extent, I've never encountered it.

I was never a part of the demo scene, but I do run across an article mentioning it from time to time. And every time I do I pause to download an example or two and allow myself to be amazed all over again. Usually, I find myself glancing back at the OpenGL books gathering dust on the bookshelf behind me. Every time I tell myself that I don't have the time or mental energy to pursue computer graphics programming seriously, not right now. But it sure is nice to be reminded that not everything in programming is about the business end of things. And that the impossible remains impossible only until someone goes out and does it.

Concerning Nuclear Triggers

Some people are raising questions about the potential effectiveness of a nuclear warhead trigger replacement design. The old warhead triggers are aging, with the last of them made back in the 80s. Thanks to the nuclear test ban, new designs for the triggers can't be tested empirically. Naturally, this makes some scientists and engineers worry.

Me, I'd be just as happy letting the warheads go bad and the knowledge of how to make them slip away. I can't imagine there is any real possibility that we will ever actually use them (which is a good thing). And I suspect, if we really twisted their arms, the politicians could find other ways of spending the money it takes to keep the nuclear weapons program alive.

If you are not interested in what some uninformed rube on the Internet guesses is happening with aging nuclear warheads, just skip the rest of this post.

As is often the case in the media, the article brushes over the technical details. I'm going to try to explain what I think is going on. Without the true technical details, I can't be sure that I'm accurate, but I think I've got a decent guess. These plutonium "triggers" are themselves essentially fission bombs. Fusion bombs work by using a conventional (chemical) shaped charge to implode the plutonium trigger causing a fission explosion. (This is the "atomic chain reaction" referred to in the article.) The design of the trigger channels the force of the fission explosion into the hydrogen core, generating the heat and pressure needed to trigger a runaway fusion reaction. It's the hydrogen core that is the ultimate source of the problems.

The main reactant in a fission bomb explosion is hydrogen, that's why they are sometimes referred to as hydrogen bombs or H-bombs. But the hydrogen used isn't everyday normal hydrogen, it's a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a couple extra neutrons known as tritium. But tritium, being radioactive, doesn't stay tritium forever. On average, for any given macroscopic quantity of tritium, about half of it will transform into helium in a little over twelve years. Helium is much harder to get to fuse than tritium, and can cause a fusion bomb to "fizzle" and produce a fraction of its intended explosive yield. Since no new nuclear triggers have been produced since the 1980s, the tritium inside has had plenty of time to decay. Testing to see how far gone the warheads are involves getting inside those precisely machined triggers, which compromises their precision design and thus makes them unusable.

Going Up and Coming Down

The drive to turn space travel into a commercial enterprise continues. Virgin Galactic revealed the design for the spaceship which they think will become the backbone of a commercial fleet. The airplane designed to carry it looks nifty, and the ship itself reportedly has the ability to reenter the atmosphere at any angle. The price tag for a ride remains quite steep (where quite = prohibitively), but hopefully the design will work and begin a new age space race.

If going into orbit isn't for you, perhaps you will be interested in an experiment to take a paper airplane, launch it from the international space station and have it survive reentry. According to the Slashdot link for the article (which is in Japanese, so I can't actually read it), a group at the University of Tokyo has already designed a plane capable of withstanding Mach 7 for a few seconds before burning up. When I read that, I immediately thought: coolest grad student gig ever.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Headline Hunting

Unfortunately, all the actual news articles seem to have corrected the AP headline that ran in the news feed as "Castro says he's too unhealthy to speak." Nice juxtaposition by the original writer, but the corrections aren't funny, so they don't get linked. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's The Lady, 80's Style

What do you get when you combine a vehicle that defies the know laws of physics, a cello playing anti-hero who could have come right out of a John Carpenter movie, a guy who wears a white suit and black eye patch, and Ernest Borgnine?

Pure, refined, eighties awesomeness.

"It's not a lousy helicopter, Senator, it's Airwolf."

Monday, January 14, 2008

The New Year All Energy Post

As of 2012 the ubiquitous incandescent bulbs that we all grew up with will be gone. But by that time there should be some good incandescent competitors to the rather poor light quality, toxic metal containing compact florescent bulbs that we will have to make do with in the short term. Either way, energy savings could be substantial, and that's all good.

In other efficiency news, a man best known as the creator of the super soaker water gun is claiming a solar energy conversion rate of sixty percent, twice that of even the best current solar cell technology, using a new solid state thermoelectric heat engine. I'll admit that it sounds like hooey, but it is my kind of hooey.

We may need all the energy savings we can get, because California is exploring ways to allow the utility company to set your thermostat higher or lower remotely in times of tight energy supply. The linked article describes the sides in the simmering argument over such a policy as populist versus Orwellian and goes on to note that the libertarian arguments against it rarely note that the technology is already in use in New York. Either way, this is the kind of ethical question that continued progress, and the increased infrastructure demands that go along with it, will only make more important as the twenty first century progresses.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

As a blogger, I’ve never participated in a meme before. That ends today. Thanks to Dubious Quality for cluing me in on this one.

The game goes like this:
  1. Use the first article title from the Wikipedia Random Articles page as your band name.
  2. Use the last four words of the last quotation on the Random Quotations page as your album name.
  3. Use the third picture in Flickr’s Interesting Photos From the Last 7 Days as the basis of your album cover.
  4. Combine using your image editor of choice.
My attempt turned up an album from the group Plumas Lake. It’s called Tolerable Planet. (Yeah, I cheated on step two, and my image editing skills are rudimentary at best, but the setup really works astoundingly well.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A More Positive Note

It's a shame that my first post of the new year ended up being a negative one. However, posting that first allowed me to follow up with this: A knife-wielding assassin made an attempt on the life of President Maumoon Gayoom of the Republic of Maldives (an island nation in the Indian Ocean) today. The attack was foiled by a teenage Boy Scout, who grabbed the knife during the attack. A spokesman for the president stated, "One brave boy saved the president's life."

Watching the Watchers

OK, I'm going to warn you up front that the three stories I am about to write about illustrate things that make me angry about and sad for the state of America in the present times. There will be ranting.

First up tonight, we have a story by former Dateline correspondent John Hockenberry about what is wrong with network journalism. It's a long story that hits quite a few subjects, but it is well worth a read. ArsTechnica's commentary on the piece works as a shorter summary if the primary article is too long for you. The irony to me is that I desperately want to have a real news show to watch. I want reporters to state the objective facts of the stories, facts they have uncovered using research rather than reading press releases. I'm sick of politics being analyzed for its impact on the polls rather than its impact on the people. I'm sick of arguing talking heads being called news. I'm sick of local news shows where each half hour consists of fifteen minutes of commercials, ten minutes of teasers for stories picked up off the national wire, and five minutes of the same weather strung out over ten thirty second segments. Give me real news. I don't mind if you don't run the story within twenty seconds of it happening; I'd rather it take two days to prepare, be accurate, and give me enough context for the event to mean something. Apparently, that is too much to ask.

Next we have the news coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show that music distributors are finally giving up on the so-called "Digital Rights Management." Soon we may actually be able to get music that works on and can be legally used with all our various devices. But video content producers are stubbornly hanging on to copy protection mechanisms. The game is all about keeping you and me, the consumers, locked into a single distribution channel so that the price can be manipulated. Upward.

Finally, Slashdot points out Dean Baker's analysis of this Washington Post story following up on Circuit City's draconian layoffs of their most experienced sales people early last year. The results, as usual, are predictable. Without their most knowledgeable and experienced sales people, sales drop and the company stock tanks. Suddenly, the executive bonuses that everyone knows are necessary to keep stellar corporate leadership such as this don't happen (or the stock options are worthless, for the same effect). So the company pays its executive VPs a million dollars each in "retention bonuses." As the analysis points out, that's a full years salary for thirty-five top-end salespeople.

Did you spot the common thread here? It seems that business ethics is an increasingly oxymoronic term in American corporate circles. What can we do about it? It's hard to avoid supporting big corporations. Almost everything we buy is produced by them. Small companies that become successful are bought by them so they can foster the illusion of growth. Working for a small company entails a certain amount of uncertainty and risk. Starting your own business is not an option for most people and entails a whole different level of risk. And the apparent best way to gain upward mobility is to get an MBA. It's enough to make one cynical...