Weekend Reading XXXX

by uber

Calculating the Speed of Light & Longitude

It’s funny what massive technological achievements disappear, almost transparently, into our lives. Boiling water, chilling food and telling the time accurately all took substantial leaps of ingenuity and a general increase in our collective ‘tech level’.


The speed of light had been a problem since at least the beginning of the ancient Greek study of optics. The Greeks themselves were split into two camps on the subject. Some like Empedocles, on whose shoulders the beginnings of much of Greek science rests, thought that the speed of light was finite arguing that light was something in motion and therefore required time to travel. Heron of Alexandria, a representative of the geometrical school of optics, thought that the transmission of light was spontaneous, the speed thus infinite, because extremely distant objects such as stars appear instantly when we open our eyes. Down through the ages those writing on optics took one side or the other in the argument. In the seventeenth century two of the most important optical experts Kepler and Descartes took opposing views, Kepler arguing for an infinite speed of light and Descartes for a finite one. Galileo and Isaac Beeckman both proposed, and may have carried out, experiments to try and determine the speed of light but were of course defeated by its actually extremely high velocity and their very, very primitive timing devices. The actual solution came from the astronomers and it was Galileo who unwittingly set the ball rolling.

Fulda Gap: a fulcrum for WWIII

World War III didn’t happen in the XXth Century, and for that we can be extremely grateful. We managed to hold to peace (at least in the aggregate, in the developed world), rather than dipping back into another aftershock of WWI. The effects of conventional weapons are mind-blowingly awful, let alone chemical, biological or nuclear. We came close enough to accidental discharge, but this article reinforced my feeling that it would have been a rapidly awful war.

As an aside, it seems that the reports about near-accidents were more alarming than I had initially thought. I usually expect a more pedestrian account to appear, explaining that the headline was overblown, but perhaps this is not so. Normally sober men seem worried.


The Soviet side, however, is a different story. One of the lessons learned after the fall of the Berlin Wall was that, although NATO considered nuclear weapons use in an invasion a possibility, to the Soviets, their use was a foregone conclusion. Every Soviet war plan unearthed from Warsaw Pact archives assumed liberal use of nuclear weapons?—?up to 300 or more.

This would have almost certainly turned the Fulda Gap into one big radioactive zone, and the 11th Armored Cavalry?—?or at least a large part of it?—?would have been blasted into oblivion.

Engine Management Basics

It’s pretty crazy to think that we use a device that generates thousands of (controlled) explosions a minute to push a rod to turn the wheels on our vehicles. Modern engines are incredibly refined things, where almost every variable is, well, variable. There’s a common standard for EMS systems, and increasingly as user interfaces and hobbyist electronics improve, the bar is rapidly lowering on tinkering with your own engine.


Modern engine management systems do a fine job of ensuring that engines run cleanly and efficiently in a wide variety of conditions, they are for the most part reliable and require little or no maintenance. However they seem from the outside to be fearsomely complicated systems which defy all attempts at understanding. Amidst all this apparent hokum it is easy to lose sight of the two basic functions performed by an EMS.

To provide a spark at the right time.
To meter fuel to the engine in the right quantity.

The Sagrada Familia and 100 years of construction.

I have long loved Gaudi’s buildings, they have a mad, hall-of-mirrors distortion to them, but they retain this beautiful sense of proportion and structure.
Seeing the Sagrada Familia in person in Barcelona was emotive; despite all the photos and virtual information I had seen, it’s the difference between hearing a piece of music and feeling the presence of the music through a complete orchestra live. It’s almost tactile.


Do Virtual Friendships Mean Less?

I’ve made friends online, particularly when we played WoW, and I have certainly experienced the notion that facebook has let me maintain friendships that would otherwise have disappeared. Similarly, I have had physical friendships dissipate despite apparent proximity. I wonder are we moving to a time when the ‘internet’ or ‘digital’ qualifier will not imply a pejorative, or will disappear altogether? That said, ‘pen pal’ was an enduring concept until we stopped penning letters.


Specifically, I posited that digital dualism should be understood to include—and be limited to—any instance where a speaker establishes a normatively-charged hierarchy of ontological categories, at least one of which is technological. Thus, were a speaker to carve up the world into the “digital” and the “physical” while suggesting the former is somehow ontologically inferior to the latter (or vice versa), she would be instantiating digital dualism, as I defined it.

The Economics of the Craft Beer Movement

My timing could not be worse. Just when I gave up drinking, and when I have largely given up eating, Dublin is awash with an unprecedented array of amazing beers, gins and affordable, varied restaurants. It’s miserable. The economics of craft beer making are really interesting: finding the right spot that allows the relatively price-sensitive diner/drinker who values quality and experience must be extremely hard. It must be even more difficult to preserve that space. I can think of quite a few pubs and restaurants that started out with a great ethos, and slid down to forgettable, generic mediocrity with disappointing speed.


Brewpubs, in short, require lots of capital up front and a willingness to master the restaurant and brewing business at the same time. But brewers that succeed don’t just create beer, they create community. They also get to oversee their beer from choosing ingredients to watching their customers enjoy it over a meal.

The Man who Organised Everything

A lot of my job is about organising things, or recovering from how things were ‘organised’ in the past. Umberto Eco elegantly expressed the beauty of lists, and there is a natural need to try and order the world.


The decisions referred to here are described in the book as “intentional arrangement,” which boils down to where we put things and how we go about putting them there. The intention part emerges from a slew of considerations about properties, provenance, ease of access. On page 297 there’s a chart showing how we might classify the various shirts in our possession: color, size, style, type of occasion. We might also, though, think about our shirts in terms of their resource value (how much we like them), their extrinsic dynamics (how often we wear them), and the organizational architecture at your disposal (the length of your closet rack). Figure out how to prioritize these factors, and you need never go rooting around your closet again.

Spain to move to GMT?

Spain keeps strange hours, I don’t think I am the only one who thinks that the times for eating and resting are quite at odds to the rest of Europe. I’m not sure how much impact the single hour of GMT/CET is responsible, but it would be interesting to find out. Even more amusing would be if the UK finally moved to CET; Greenwich would then be one hour ahead of its own time. Historically, I understand that the MPs from the Highlands of Scotland have been one of the more vocal groups to oppose such a move, perhaps with independence that block would be gone?


Spain has lived under Central European Time, GMT+1 time since WWII when the regime, along with many other countries, adopted the German time zone and never changed it back. To make things worse, Spain also uses the controversial daylight saving time between April and October, two hours ahead of daylight and two and a half hours for the eastern side of the country.