Monday, June 25, 2007

Recursive Murphism

O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law: Murphy was an optimist.

A few months ago, I wrote about Murphy's Law in the other blog.

I don't think I've ever managed to cram three links into a short sentence before. Pardon me while I marvel.

Okay, back to Murphy's Law. As everyone knows, Murphy's Law states: If anything can go wrong, it will. This is one of those truths that is so fundamental, you figure it's carved into a monument built during the Second Dynasty in Egypt. It may well be, but it turns out that the original statement of the law was provided in the late 1940's by Captain Ed Murphy, a West Point graduate, who was a developmental engineer. As detailed in the earlier article, after the failure of a strain gage rig to operate properly, Captain Murphy is said to have blamed it on a technician, with the words, "If there is any way to do it wrong, he will." Later, at a press conference, another officer worked the words around to the form we recognize today and identified the phrase as "Murphy's Law."

As far as it goes, that's reasonably accurate. But, as I found out today, there is a whole lot more to the story. I was browsing around the Annals of Improbable Research, a site which I've mentioned before in connection with the Ig Nobel "awards" they issue each year. In looking at the classic articles, I noticed one entitled, "
The Fastest Man on Earth (The Birth of Murphy's Law)". The article, by Nick T. Spark, goes into exquisite detail about Ed Murphy, the testing that went on at Muroc, and what exactly was said by whom when.

I'm not going to rehash Mr. Spark's article, because it's very long, and he does a better job at it than I do. But I'll share some tidbits just to whet your interest.
  • The MX981 project I mentioned in my other article involved rocket sled testing, which I learned now was more about deceleration than acceleration.

  • The sled was called "The Gee Whiz."

  • The guy whose face is getting rearranged all over his skull during the sled ride films we've all seen is Captain John Paul Stapp. You know the film footage; it's been in every program about the early days of rocket testing (even though the project wasn't so much about rockets).

  • It is probably Captain Stapp who announced Murphy's Law to the world. His intent was to get his people to understand that anything can go wrong for any reason. His intent was that they should be thorough and constantly double-checking themselves and each other.

  • Despite Mr. Spark's best efforts, interviewing Ed Murphy's son, David Hill, who was on the project, and even Chuck Yeager, no one seems to be exactly sure what words Captain Murphy actually uttered. Even Captain Murphy, whose voice was on a tape of an interview he did thirty years later, wasn't sure.
What was most amusing was that, according to Mr. Spark, Murphy's Law was so universal that it even seemed to apply to the creation of the law itself and his own investigation of how the law came to be. In other words, Murphy's Law applies to Murphy's Law.

Now that's a fundamental law of nature.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Oetzi Caper

There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of e life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. ~ Sherlock Holmes, A Study In Scarlet

It must have been a slow news day in the science biz a couple of weeks ago for the BBC to put yet another story proclaiming that the real cause of the Iceman's death had been determined.

What, again?

For those of you who are oblivious to science news, in 1991, a mummified body was found in the Alps. Initially, it was thought to be a recent death, so the authorities were called in. As they investigate, they began to find artifacts, like a copper ax, a grass cloak, and a knife, that were obviously very old. Anthropologists took over, and it was ultimately determined that Oetzi (variously spelled Otzi or Utzi), as he was called because of the location where he had been found, was over 5,000 years old. After a ten-year custody battle, he now resides in the South Tyrol in Italy, where pathologists just can't get enough of poking and prodding him.

So what is the final (for the moment) cause of death? He got shot with an arrow and bled to death.

This is news?


"At some point, probably making his way through the mountain pass, he was shot by an assailant, although in the earlier episode, it was stated he could have been shot much earlier, because the wound was not immediately fatal. An artery had been hit, which meant Oetzi bled to death, but he could have taken some time to do so." You'll find that pithy quote here, penned almost a year ago by yours truly. I based that on the results stated in a Discovery Channel program. The only significant difference between my statement is that the current pathological genius maintains he couldn't have gone very far thanks to the amount of bleeding he was undergoing.

But, even he waffles.
"this is speculation, because someone might have helped him up there. I'd rather stick to the facts", says the good doctor. So Oetzi might have been shot at a lower altitude and assisted by person or persons unknown for some distance before expiring on the glacier. In other words, we don't know anything we didn't know before. And we don't know anything new. Period.

The fascination for things Oetzi is amazing. Scientists have picked up many tantalizing hints about human civilization in this pre-Bronze era, and all sorts of intriguing scenarios about Oetzi, his lifestyle, and prehistoric human beings have been imagined.
But Oetzi is a sample of one. Drawing sweeping conclusions about how we lived 5,000 years ago from one mummy is a bit dangerous, just as presenting little dramas about his demise are pure speculation. For ages, people believed that Oetzi was a shepherd or a trader who died when he got caught in a sudden storm on the glacier. Then the arrowhead was found and CSI:Oetzi commenced. Now we've reached the point where a pathologist is offering the opinion that he died just like everyone has already decided that he did, only sooner, unless he got help, for which we have no proof.

It's time to put the murder case to rest and go back to learning more about Oetzi's time and surroundings from his belongings. That's where the real interest lies. We know humans have been violent as long as they could pick up a stick to hit another human with. Rather than focusing on Oetzi's dying, it's time to focus on his living.

We've got a lot to learn.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

RIP Mr. Wizard

Over the years, Don [Herbert] has been personally responsible for more people going into the sciences than any other single person in this country. I fully realize the number is virtually endless when I talk to scientists. They all say that Mr. Wizard taught them to think. ~ George Tressel

When Don Herbert, better known as Mr. Wizard, passed away last week, there was a veritable flood of articles and posts that all said roughly the same thing: I grew up watching Mr. Wizard.

Add me to the list.

The sad thing is that Don Herbert couldn't do his show today. First of all, any grown man inviting kids into his house to conduct "experiments" would be branded as a pedophile. Second, the Department of Homeland (in)Security could be accusing him of teaching bomb-making techniques to young terrorists, especially since his series in the 1980's featured kids of many ethnic backgrounds.

Obviously, the folks who run DHS never watched Mr. Wizard, because, as George Tressel says above, he taught critical thinking, something woefully lacking in our society today.

We seem to be almost phobic about learning anything today. Once upon a time, there was Mr. Wizard and shows like "Big Blue Marble" (hosted by Harry Chapin's brother, Tom) among others on network television. PBS was slopping over with kid shows that had fun and taught things. These programs were also enjoyable for adults Even into the 1980's, when Nickelodeon was showing a new generation of Mr. Wizard programs, you could find a decent assortment of programming that was both educational and entertaining.

There are precious few, if any, of these sorts of programs any more.

I'm not saying that all shows aimed at kids need to be educational. I was a huge fan of cartoons, and I still can rank myself with the Spongebob fans out there. After all, all work and no play makes a dull kid. But to have nothing around is inexcusable.

TLC has become a useless freak show. Discovery has cursing bikers, idiotic survivalists, and crab fishermen. History and History International are fascinated with UFO's, Armageddon, and pseudo-science, like the recent idiocy of the "scientist" who insisted that the ancient Egyptians used kites to build the pyramids and raise obelisks.

The Science Channel and PBS' Nova try, but they are seriously outnumbered. The Science Channel is not above showing Discovery Channel drivel, and it repeats it's legitimate science programs endlessly.

It's a wasteland out there.

The irony is that the people that Don Herbert was trying to teach to think are the ones that are in charge now. There the ones who have decided that mush-for-brains programming is the only way to make a profit. The kids raised on a steady diet of bathroom humor and expletive-deleted reality television are the ones on whom our future depends. I can't imagine that Don Herbert was pleased with what he was seeing in the last few years.

Don Herbert's shows were about learning for the most part, but they were also about respect. He didn't talk down to the kids on his shows. He also challenged them, the viewers as well as the ones on the show, to answer questions about what they were seeing, not just to go "Oh, wow" and move on to the next amusement.

Goodbye, Mr. Wizard. We've lost you at a time when we need you most.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Bit's Worth

There are 10 types of people in this world: those who understand binary and those who don't. ~Author Unknown

Someone at Discover magazine, evidently with a deadline to fill and no real topic at hand, has calculated the weight of the data on the Internet on an average day. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the article for you by telling you the answer ... well, yes I would, because it's one of the slightly silly and somewhat meaningless exercises undertaken by popular science media.

It's 0.2 millionths of an ounce. And most of it is pornography.

Okay, I made the bit about porn up, but the minuscule number is legit. It's so small because the "data" is actually electrons. And electrons, to use a technical term, are teensy.

Technical folks (and scientists, for that matter) are fond of coming up with such things, partly to show how clever they are and partly to "put things into an understandable perspective." In this case, it's an attempt to give some idea of the masses of data floating around the internetworks of the world. Of course, it does the reverse by coming up with a weight that is less than that of a grain of sand.

To tell the truth, I'm not sure what it proves. The process of determining what the weight is, on the other hand, is somewhat interesting, so perhaps that was the author's point.

It brings to mind another computing conundrum: How long is a bit?

Back in 1995, I was lucky to be learning my trade by working with a number of extremely talented geeks whose depth of networking knowledge constantly amazed me. One of them, who I will call Ed (because that was his name; I have no imagination) wanted to get out of the contracting game we were all in and get a job with a real networking outfit. When Network General (now part of McAfee, I believe) invited him to interview, he was in heaven. Since most of what I know about networking came from Ed, I was pretty confident that he would get the job.

He came back from the interview looking like his best friend had just died. It turned out to be fiendishly difficult, because the kind of jobs that Network General was filling require a level of knowledge that goes to the fundamentals of how bits are processed. Despite Ed's demonstrated expertise, he realized that there was still a lot he had to learn. One question they asked, though, really chapped him.

What, the interviewer asked, is the physical length of a bit?

Now, a bit, as in the case of the weight problem above, is basically an electrical signal, so it's made up of electrons, right? So a bit is, as stated above, teensy, right? According to the interviewer, it wasn't. But, what was really aggravating is that when Ed asked what the answer was, the interviewer said, "It depends."

A few months later, I was working another gig and was introduced to a another member of the company who was supposedly a networking genius, so I asked him about the length of a bit. He looked at me sagely, and said, "It depends."

"Depends on what?" I cried.

"Oh, the bandwidth, the cabling, that sort of thing," he said. So I came back at him with specifics: 10 megabits per second (mb/sec) over copper wire. He hemmed and hawed about how there was more to it than that and wandered off.

Well, campers, it turns out that there isn't more to it than that, so apparently he didn't know the answer either. The reason I know what there is to it is that I found the answer.

David James Clarke wrote books about Novell networking for years. To break up the monotony of terminology and installation methods, he would inject little puzzles and odd facts. One of those odd facts was the method for calculating the length of a bit. Here's how it's done.

A bit is made up of electrons which travel at the speed of light, which is 300,000,000 meters/sec (using meters makes the numbers easier). When electrons travel through a medium, like copper wire, they are slowed down or attenuated. Let's say we're using copper; the attenuation rate is about 80%, which means we multiply our speed by .8, yielding, 240,000,000 m/sec. Now a typical modern network has a bandwidth of 100 mb/sec or 100,000,000 bits per sec. So, if we divide 240,000,000 by 100,000,000, we get 2.4 meters per bit.

That's right. A bit is about 7.8 feet long. This is supposed to be a real phenomenon. I'm not so sure about that. For example, that same bit is 24 meters long at 10 mb/sec and 0.24 meters at 1000 mb/sec. Now, if you think of clay being pushed through different diameter dies, it will be thicker and shorter at larger diameters. But electrons aren't clay. Also, moving at 80 % of the speed of light, there would be length contraction as well, so what is the real length?

Frankly, I think it's not a physical phenomenon because a bit is not a physical entity but a stream of electrons. Now the stream may be some physical length, but I've never found anyone who would relate the bit length to that.

However, the next time that guy from IT looks at you like you're an idiot because of something you've done to your computer, challenge him with the bit length question. When he says he doesn't know and asks what the answer is, just lean back in your chair, look smug, and say with great wisdom:

"It depends."