Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fossils and Petrifications

I was looking for something online today and accidentally found Memorial and Biographical History of the counties of Fresno, Tulare and Kern, California originally published in 1892. This section on "Fossils and Petrifications" is bizarre, especially the part about the "wonderful 'find' of a human petrifaction".
The most interesting of fossil discoveries was the exhumation of the mammoth and of man - "proof positive of the existence of both at the same time," and that "both occupied this country together with saurians the remains of all three being found in the same gravel deposit and stratum." The above is quoted from a history made of Fresno County in 1882. It is somewhat surprising to the writer that the broad claim should be made "proof positive" by one who has seen the wonderful conformations of California, and note the laws of nature as applied to other regions being here set aside. The strata are here more disturbed and thrown out of order than in any other country. The remains of the mastodon might have been thrown up from a burial place of centuries, and again submerged with that of man at a time when he, too, was destroyed by the mighty throes of Mother Nature. Finding the remains of mastodons, saurians and man in one common sepulcher proves nothing more than that they are there together; it does not even tend to prove they lived at the same period in the same locality. It is said that the first mastodon remains were found on the Fresno river, some distance above what is known as the adobe bottom. It measured twenty-two feet in length; the tusks were eleven feet, and curving upward; at the base they were five feet apart. The legs were short, but very heavy. The whole structure was complete, but with all the care and wisdom of the discoverers, they were unable to put the bones together so as to reproduce the animal. ...

As has already been stated in the geological summary of the valley, the Coast Range mountains contain numerous petrifactions. There was a wonderful "find" of a human petrifaction in Cantua canon near the Coast Range, in December, 1890. S. L. Packwood and I. N. Barrett of Fresno City were working in said canon on December 12, where Packwood owned a timber claim. They were seeking a suitable site to construct a dam to divert the waters of the canon upon a piece of land which was to be brought into cultivation, when Mr. Barrett discovered a human foot protruding from the bank of the stream. Both men viewed the object with amazement, and were the more surprised on feeling the foot and finding it to resemble stone. Their curiosity led them to unearth the remains, and soon they decided to take them to Fresno. The weight was about 500 pounds. Arriving at Fresno, the petrifaction attracted all, and several of the medical profession made a thorough examination, and took measurements of the petrifaction and pronounced it genuine and not of a "Cardiff" nature. The general appearance of the body led to the conclusion that he was a fine specimen of the Castilian race. He measured six feet four and one-half inches in height, foot eleven and one-half inches in length, length of arm sixteen and one-half inches, and length of forearm, twelve inches, and length of legs thirty-six inches. This is the most wonderful petrifaction found in the county and preserved.
If you want to see lots of fossils, take a tour of the Fairmead landfill, in Madera county. It is possibly the largest Pleistocene fossil deposit in the country, and pretty impressive to see. It looks like the Madera Mammoths website is still under construction.

The story of Jim Savage is for another day :) In the meantime, you can read about our local train robbers who hid in the foothills around Pinehust, Badger, Eshom, and Redwood Canyon. Their hideouts would make good but treacherous geocaches :) This picture will remind you that "crime does not pay" :)

Libraries and cannons

The recent hurricane Ike exposed a civil war shipwreck (that was also exposed in 2006). That reminded me of a big storm from UCSB days. It was the only time I remember full size trees washed up on the Santa Barbara beaches, along with the terrible smell of dead seal lions and elephant seals. A lot of sand was ripped from the beaches, also unusual. But that exposed old cannons on the beach just south of campus. This fueled a controversy about whether they were from Sir Francis Drake's ("His exploits were legendary, making him a hero to the English but a simple pirate to the Spaniards.") ship in the late 1570s. There is a great write-up (but you have to scroll down to Goleta Cannon Site). Any city proving a visit by Drake would have coveted bragging rights :) More than you ever wanted to know about Drake and whether he got his latitudes correct here -- including a discussion of astrolabs :)

Speaking of more recent history, every time I hear about a Carnegie library I am amazed at how putting public libraries in cities large and small (Orosi, Exeter, and Dinuba, but not Reedley?) changed the United States. Fresno's was impressive
Funded by a 1901 Carnegie grant of $30,000, and completed in 1904, the Fresno Carnegie Library was one of the earliest and costliest of the Carnegies.
but was a victim of the tear-down fever of the late 1950s to mid 1960s. Another casualty was the Fresno Country courthouse from 1875, you can see the dome crashing down here (page 73).

One more thing: these photos from the VAB at KSC reminded me of the few (two?) times I was in the building with a shuttle in some state of integration with the external tank and SRBs. I remember going in a side door where we were given a brief safety briefing (like the one you get on a tour of Vandenberg before go into a room with a missle) and we had to put our ID badges in slots on the wall before we went into the main part of the VAB. Our guide said it was so that if something went wrong they would know who was in the building :)

Software engineering students please read :)

Elon Musk's (of PayPal and Tesla Motors fame) SpaceX successfully launched today. SpaceX is very open about what goes right and wrong with their launches. Video was live from the booster, including first stage separation, which was really cool. Musk was overwhelmed and couldn't get many words out during a post-launch interview.

August's launch worked, but the spacecraft was unusable because after first and second stages collided during separation -- caused by a single line of code:
“The fix was also very simple, requiring one line of code to be changed,” SpaceX officials said in a weekend update.
Read more here. You can see the first and second stage collision (and the resulting tumble) by skipping to about the 2:40 point of this video.

Earlier in September the space station astronauts had to update antivirus software. What?? (emphasis added)
The updates are aimed at ensuring the space station’s computers continue to quarantine viruses like W32.Gammima.AG, a Windows-based worm detected and properly quarantined in the outpost’s computers in late July. The low-risk virus, which is designed to steal passwords for online computer games, was first reported on July 25 after being detected by the station’s protection software. It did not infect the station’s command and control computers and posed no threat to the orbiting lab, though NASA engineers were hoping to find out exactly how the virus reached the station.
Should have got a Mac :)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Two kinds of fish

First, well known humanities and law scholar, and NY Times columnist, Stanley Fish was interviewed on NPR's Talk of the Nation this week about liberal education and his book Save the world on your own time. One of the ideas is that university professors should stick to the academic inquiry approach in class and leave opinions out of class. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, he says
the three-part mantra which organizes the book: Do your job, don’t try to do someone else’s job and don’t let anyone else do your job. And I think that if we as instructors ... would adhere to that mantra, we would be more responsible in the prosecution of our task and less vulnerable to the criticisms of those who would want to either undermine or control us
He's not a big fan of service learning.

Another thing that reminded me of fish was an letter to the editor of the newspaper recalling when fish would be dropped in to high sierra lakes. It's a pretty weird sight (seeing the bombers taking off today from the CalFire air attack base at FAT prompted me to write this). Planting fish from airplanes into lakes where they aren't native (and in fact into lakes that never had fish) went on for a long time (see this 1954 Popular Mechanics article), as has the controversy about non-native fish plants destroying native sierra amphibian populations. Which seems like a no-brainer, I've never really got the need to plant fish were they weren't in the first place. There is also the whole controversy of whether planted fish inbreed with native populations, something denied but apparently proved using DNA, but that is a topic for another day :)

Dave Barry even talks about the perils of fish bombs :)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

P.S. to T-Fried

I forgot to mention that at the very end of his 3.0 keynote, Friedman has some good lines about how the "green revolution" isn't really a revolution since no one is getting hurt, and that what we need to do is "change our leaders, not our lightbulbs" :)

Bono quotes him at the end of this short YouTube video.

I think, but I'm not sure, that he used the line first in a NY Times column in December 2007, excerpted below
People often ask: I want to get greener, what should I do? New light bulbs? A hybrid? A solar roof? Well, all of those things are helpful. But actually, the greenest thing you can do is this: Choose the right leaders. It is so much more important to change your leaders than change your light bulbs.

... when leaders change the rules, you get scale change across the whole marketplace. And the energy-climate challenge we face today is a huge scale problem. Without scale, all you have is a green hobby.

Have no illusions, everything George Bush wouldn’t do on energy after 9/11 — his resisting improved mileage for cars and actually trying to weaken air-conditioner standards — swamped any good works you did.

T-Fried 3.0

Thomas Friedman gave a keynote address at an MIT Open Courseware event, updating his previous talk on The World is Flat to verson 3.0

You can see it here on YouTube, but you can also download it in better quality mp4 format here.

Monday, September 01, 2008

You are not expected to understand this

I read a few pages of Digital Apollo every day. Interesting (even talks about the X-15 flight control systems) and thorough to the point of being ... very thorough :) But good discussions of the engineering trade offs made between pilot- or computer-in-control, and MTTF. The author also has some good quips (p.124):
It has become fashionable to denigrate the computers of the past with phrases like "we flew to the moon with less computing power than I have on my wristwatch," or "can you believe the entire Apollo program fit into a mere 36 k of memory?" Simply focusing on memory size, or the computer's speed, however, misses the important engineering accomplishments of the Apollo computer. For who among us would risk our lives on our desktop computers, with all their speed, accuracy, and memory, and rely on their working flawlessly for two straight weeks? The space shuttle flies with five redundant computers,. Any fully digital airliner has a minimum of three. Apollo had only one. It never failed in flight.
I have a little quibble with that. As we know from watching Apollo 13, there were actually two computers along for the ride (the astronauts moved the navigation data from the CM computer to the LM computer before shutting down the CM).

In any case, the author attributes the following to "Opening lines of Apollo software source code" (p. 145):
Quest oculus non vide, cor non delet
What the eye does not see, the heart does not regret
"A lot happens that we are not telling you about."
Which reminds me of the famous comment in the UNIX kernel code "You are not expected to understand this" (but the professor in our graduate level operating systems class insisted that we did for the exam :)

Dennis Ritchie explains what they meant by that famous comment on his Bell Labs website (scroll down about a screen). He mentions Lions commentary and source code, which were the textbook for our operating systems class. You can still buy it, or download it and all the source code (see end of the Wikipedia entry for Lions' book.

The famous quote is in the body of swtch() at line 2238. Lions explanation begins in Section 8.9 of his commentary with "The comment which begins here is not encouraging." It is an amazingly clever way to do process switching though.