Monday, January 28, 2013


To non-mathematicians, math must seem like “just numbers.” You know, the three “R’s,” readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmatic. Certainly most people are exposed to math beyond simple Arithmetic … if you assume Arithmetic is simple. (Actually, some of the most complex and difficult mathematics that exists works with Arithmetic. It is called “Number Theory,” but we’ll save that for another day.)

Most students were introduced in High School to Algebra where letters substitute for numbers, Geometry where there weren’t any numbers at all, and Trigonometry, which, in my day, meant using a lot of tables to get back to “numbers.” Some have had the joy of Calculus. As the saying goes, “no one flunks the Calculus, they just flunk the Algebra.” That refers to the fact that there’s a lot of Algebra in the Calculus. (You may have noticed we just say “Algebra,” but we say “The Calculus.” That’s just a funny little habit mathematicians have.)

Actually, my experience teaching adults mathematics is that the problems start in Arithmetic. The place where the problems begin is with fractions. If you really understand fractions, then the leap to Algebra isn’t all that hard.

(I would also review “powers,” that’s exponents and logarithms … that’s exponents too. Fractions and exponents were where people who had been out of school for a few years needed a good review.)

So, let’s start with a little review. We will begin with the rules for multiplying fractions. First a reminder of terminology: the part of a fraction on the top is called the “numerator” and the part on the bottom is called the “denominator.”

To multiply two fractions, you just multiply the numerators and then you multiply the denominators and you have the new fraction that is the “product.” For example, 1/3 * 3/4 = 1 * 3 over 3 * 4 or 3/12. You would reduce that to 1/4 … the simplest form.

(I’ll have to write my fractions this way since this word processor doesn’t let me write them above and below a line like I would prefer. Mathematicians and word processors sometimes have to arm wrestle, and — in this case — the word processor won.)

In words you could pronounce the multiply sign as “of.” So the problem is spoken as one-third of three-quarters. Well, one-third of three-quarters is a quarter. Sure, if it was left-over pizza, that’s how you would divide it among three people. Note that somehow, almost mysteriously, multiplication of fractions seems more like division. Well, it is. There is this thing called the "reciprocal." But let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got some other fish to fry. (Hmmmm, fish tacos, why not fish pizza? This is more than a math class. This is a cooking class. And now we’re really cooking!)

It is a little harder adding of two fractions. To add two fractions, they must have the same denominator. Adding 3/8 + 1/8 is easy since they both have 8 for a denominator. The rule is that you add the numerator, and then write that over the “common” denominator.

3/8 + 1/8 = 3 + 1 over the 8, which equals 4/8. Of course, now you should do some simplification where you convert the answer to the “lowest denominator.” For example, 4/8 = 2/4 = 1/2. Now you are at the lowest denominator.

Let’s do another. 3/8 + 5/8. That’s 8/8 = 4/4 = 2/2 = 1. Remember, when the numerator = denominator, that’s one. Are these rules coming back to you?

Now, in math, just as in real life, once you figure out the easy cases, they throw the hard ones at you. What if the denominators are different? Well, they you convert the fractions until they have the same denominator … a “common” denominator.

Let’s add 3/8 + 1/4. You probably notice, with this simple problem, that the “4” in the second fraction is a factor of the “8” in the first fraction. So what we could do is multiply the 4 in the denominator by “2” and we would get “8.” But we must do this without changing the fractions value. You may recall the trick was to multiply both the denominator AND the numerator by 2. So you get 2/2 * 1/4 = 2/8.

Basically, 2/8 is the same as 1/4. What is really happening is that you are multiplying the fraction by another fraction that has the same number in the numerator and the denominator. Recall the rule that any number divided by itself is 1, and 1 times any number is still that number. So, effectively, you are just multiplying the original fraction by one and that doesn’t change anything. I didn’t lose you, did I? Read it again. Get out a pencil and try for yourself. Now you’ve got it.

Ah ha, just reminded you that a fraction is also a division problem where the numerator is the “dividend” and the denominator is the “divisor.” (The denominator “goes-inta” the numerator, as we use to say in the sticks.)

Remember the pizza example. Multiplying by a fraction is really a form of division. (You may even recall that to divide fractions, you invert and multiply. Slippery little devils aren’t they. Oh yes, it’s all coming back now!)

So, 1/4 is 1 divided by 4 and 2/8 is 2 divided by 8. Now back to our problem.

3/8 + 1/4 = 3/8 + 2/8 = 5/8 and that’s the “final answer.”

Well, that was easy. What if the denominators don’t have any common factors? Suppose it was 3/4 + 1/3?

Well, then you just multiply the first denominator by the second denominator and you multiply the second denominator by the first. That’s actually the general rule that will always work. Of course, to keep from changing the fraction, you have to multiply the numerator by the same amount. Get out your pencil and follow along:

So you multiply the 3/4 by the denominator of the second fraction: 3.

So you get 3/3 * 3/4 = 9/12.

Now multiply the second fraction by the denominator from the first: 4.

That’s 4/4 * 1/3 = 4/12.

Now they’ll both have the same denominator. Works every time. Now you can add:

3/4 + 1/3 = 9/12 + 4/12 = 13/12. 

That’s actually the lowest form, but some would convert that to a mixed fraction of 1-1/12. (Spoken as one and one-twelfth.)

Now we’re ready for the jump to Algebra. Algebra is just generalized Arithmetic where you work the calculations with letters that stand for “variables.” Basically, a variable can be (almost) any number. The results will be true if you then substitute actual values for the variables. That’s the start of Algebra.

So, if you had to add a/b + c/d, you don’t know what values b and d will have, so you take the basic rule I went over above and multiply the first fraction by the denominator of the second and vice-versa.

That would be

(and I’ll use the Algebra shortcut that you don’t need the multiply sign (*), you can just write the letters next to each other to signify multiplication)

d/d * a/b = ad/bd and b/b * c/d = cb/bd 

(Notice the order of multiplication doesn’t matter: b * d = d * b. That’s called “commutativity.” Another rule of algebra.)

So the addition becomes ad/bd + cb/bd = (ad + cb) / bd. (I added the parentheses because this editor won’t let me write the fractions as above and below the line like I would prefer.)

I’ll try:
ad + cb

Sometimes we used Algebra to create "formulas" that can then be used to simply solve problems. That last formula is the solution for adding two fractions, no matter what the denominators are. It is the first fraction numerator (a) times the second denominator (d), plus the second fraction numerator (c) times the first fraction denominator (b). Then all that is divided by the product of the two denominators. So this formula is the "general solution" for adding two fractions. Program it into your computer, and you can forget all the Arithmetic you ever knew.

So now you may have a better understanding of how Algebra can be considered generalized Arithmetic. Also notice that it is true that most students begin to have trouble with math at fractions. If you really know and understand fractions well, then you have a great advantage when you start studying Algebra. And good Algebra skills make Calculus easy — just a tip from the old master. Now wasn’t that fun? Who says math is hard?!!?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Taming Fire

A fictional tale by Mickey Cheatham

“Send in Mr. Johnson, please nurse.” As my next patient entered the room, I reviewed his chart. It was just an annual visit, and I read his file as he entered the room. Age: 142 — middle aged. Health: pretty typical. Last Injection was four years ago. He shouldn’t need one for another six years, but the scientist in my knew that these were just averages and every individual responded differently to the medical discovery that had yielded not only the extended life we all now enjoyed, but literally healed medical problems that no one could even treat back in the twentieth century.

“Please take a seat, Mr. Johnson. How are you feeling?”

“Very good doctor. My third set of teeth have fully grown in.”

I quickly checked his chart and saw the last set of teeth had been removed six months ago. The new tooth growth was right on the expected time-line. “Very good. Anything else.”

“Yes, I lost the end of my thumb a few months ago in an accident at the plant. It has grown back quite nicely, but it took a little longer than the plant doctor expected. Do you think I need another Injection?”

“Well,” I responded, “it is possible. But we’ll have to do some tests. You have to be very careful with something as powerful as the Injection.”

“There’s not any danger is there doc?”

I had always told my patients the truth. Many thought the power of the Injection was like magic, as it certainly appeared to be. All the human suffering it has relieved, not to mention the lengthening of lifetimes made it seem a little like magic, and most patients viewed me as some kind of witch doctor for administering the Injections. So I like to be very straight forward with my patients and explain the risks as well as the benefit.

“Well, it is a powerful treatment,” I responded. “I like to compare it to fire. For thousands of years man struggled to conquer fire and make it his servant. Even today, when we routinely use fire to keep our homes warm, cook our meals, to manufacture our metals, and even for such everyday tasks as lighting a cigarette are now things that we don’t even think about. But still, today, even with all our scientific advances, fire can get away from our control and cause damage.”

“We’ve have many tools to protect us from fire such as smoke detectors in our homes and city fire departments ready to save our homes in case the fire does escape.”

“But if you think back to ancient times, men were very intimidated by fire. It was a great danger that could destroy a home and even a large city if it got out of control. It was a very dangerous thing and it is only in the last few hundred years that we’ve really conquered fire through the use of fire-proof materials, built-in sprinkler systems, and sensitive instruments to keep the fire under control.”

“We accomplished turning fire from a dangerous enemy to a tool that we use everyday without any concern about its danger.”

“The Injections are no different. They have brought us great good, but they can be dangerous. Before we learned how to master this powerful tool, it was actually greatly feared by mankind. Just like a runaway forest fire, the power of the Injection could destroy lives and even the mention of its name would bring fear to doctors and patients alike.”

“No, it is still powerful and can cause great damage if it gets out of control. But man has learned to control the powerful, one-time enemy, and now uses it for good. Why most people today don’t even remember its name. It is now just called the 'Injection.'”

My patient seemed relieved after my explanation. I think it is always best to explain the wonders of modern science to the patient, rather than let them have irrational fears. We arranged for the battery of tests that would be performed as an out-patient in preparation to giving Mr. Johnson a booster shot of the injection. It is a powerful tool, but it can still get out of control if we are not very careful.

I sent him out of the room to meet with my nurse and schedule the tests.

Glancing at my watch, I realized I had a little while before my next patient was due, and I had time to review two current cases. One was a soldier injured by a land mine. He had lost both of his legs above the knees when he was clearing a field of unexploded mines.

Even in a time of peace, the job of a soldier can be very dangerous. He was clearing up an old mine field left over from one of those civil wars that can still break out in poorer countries. The war had been over for more than a year, but the dangerous mines were still there, and our government was assisting with the mine removal when the soldier stepped on the explosive losing both legs.

However, the prognosis was quite good. In cases like major limb loss, a booster shot of the Injection is usually used to speed up the regrowth of the new limbs. Of course, such a powerful treatment required careful monitoring to make sure the Injection doesn’t get out of control. The Injection can cure severe injury to bone and nerve, and eliminated all of the paralysis cases caused by neck and spine injury. Just the fact that the Injection could restore feeling and movement to formerly paralyzed people would be miracle enough without the life extending benefits to heart and mind.

Later this afternoon I would be supervising administration of the Injection to a six week-old child. This baby was born with a birth defect that left a hole between two chambers of her heart. Careful use of the Injection would allow this defect to grow closed naturally in just a few short days.

Normally the first Injection is only given to children around their eighteenth year, after their primary growth is over, but, under careful control and doctor monitoring, it can be given earlier to cure difficult medical problems and assist with healing.

Imagine, broken arms and legs used to take six months or longer to heal and the patient wore a cast during that time. Now we can grow the bone back together in a short hospital visit of less than a week.

We continue to learn more about the Injection, and how to keep it under control and only working for good. Funny when you think about it, how — at one time — it was one of the most feared diagnosis that a patient could get. Doctors actually took classes in medical school to learn how to break the news to their patients that they had the dreaded disease.

And now that killer has been turned into a servant of mankind. Just like the story I told Mr. Johnson. It is like the tale of fire. Once a scourge, now it serves mankind.

I don’t think anyone back in the twentieth century, with its focus on prescriptions and surgery, had any idea that that terrible disease would some day serve man. We have it under control now, although we still have to be very careful in its use.

Yes, it is very odd how quickly the transformation of society has occurred. A life span of over two hundred years is now easily accepted as we work to extend health even longer. So far the Injection has been able to treat and cure nearly every other disease that has inflicted mankind and does a wonderful job treating injuries that once led to paralysis and loss of limbs. The Injection has lengthened life, cured disease, and is used to treat terrible injuries and burns that were impossible to do before. Even poisons and radiation exposure is now cured. The blind can see again, and the lame can walk. We have truly tamed the fire.

Yes, the Injection has become the modern wonder treatment. These days hardly anyone except a historian even remembers the terrible name it was once know by — Cancer.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fire of Driftwood

My brother Chuck will recall my attempt to put Longfellow’s “Fire of Driftwood” to music. I was experimenting with an open tuning on a beat up acoustic guitar and I wrote and performed the long … it was a long poem … performance. I love memorizing poetry. I think that putting a word-song to memory enhances the enjoyment … internalizes it.

My old Navy buddies will remember me walking around the ship reciting “Kubla Kahn,” Coleridge’s epic poem that he thought up in a dream. I have the same affinity for Shakespeare. He really did invent the modern English language in his writing and so many of the trite sayings we use today came original and sparkling from his quill pen.

Language is communication, and poetry is music in language. Set poetry to music and you have the modern pop hit. Analyze Bob Dylan’s work, it’s not about the performance, even the melody isn’t the thing that makes him so great. It’s the words; same with Paul Simon; a little bit with Neil Young. An interesting question: who do you think writes the best words?

But back to Longfellow. He was a member of a group of New England poets in the nineteenth century often called the “Fireside poets.” These men included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and — of course — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The name “fireside poets” comes from their popularity and the fact that they wrote before the electric light was invented. It turns out that, due to the standards of rhyme and meter that they followed, their poems are excellent for memorization and recitation.

People my age had their fill of these writers in public school rooms. Decidedly New England and a little Ivy League, these poets represented to me, not just the language and habits of a by-gone era, but a place of civilization well advanced from the rough western life my great-grandparents lived in rural Montana. For a kid from the boonies, these men of letters represented a liberal arts education and a sophisticated upbringing.

However, times, even in New England, in the eighteen hundreds, were not modern and full of convenience. The homes were more like cabins, little insulation and drafty windows. Outdoor plumbing. No central heating, so the fireplace provided a cheery respite from the cold. But, like a campfire, you can be hot on the front and still cold in back. It requires some careful locating to get the optimum warmth from a blazing fire. Winter in the North East is cold and snowy, and this was before hoodies were invented. I often day dreamed about this era, whether it was when reading one of these poets or trying to unravel the mystery of a Sherlock Holmes story.

So let’s talk a little about the “Fire of Driftwood.” Possibly Chuck will even recall the finger picked chords that formed my simple "I — V — IV — I" accompanied melody. I never came up with a bridge, so it was about sixteen verses of the same basic melody, only punctuated by a short lead on the higher frets.

We sat within the farm-house old,
  Whose windows, looking o'er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze, damp and cold,
  An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
  The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
  The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
  Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
  Our voices only broke the gloom.

We actually know exactly when these verses were written. It was the twenty-ninth of September, 1846, according to Longfellow’s journal. He was at Devereux Farm, near Marblehead, at a point where the ocean meets the land. He was recalling a time past that he had spent remembering the past.

In Longfellow's poem, old friends are assembled round the fireplace in a drafty farmhouse near the harbor of Marblehead, Massachusetts, on a stormy, cold, and damp night, swapping stories about vanished friends and events that took place long ago.

From the beginning, the distinctions between the inside and the outside, between the sea and the land are vacuous. Through rattling windows, the sea wind enters the house, where wood taken from "the wreck of stranded ships" is burning in the fireplace.

What is implied here is the old and familiar idea of life as a seafaring journey and of shipwreck as the fate that may befall everyone. In a room so dark that we seem to be listening to disembodied voices rather than actual people, Longfellow's speakers (as so often in his poetry, he employs the collective "we" rather than the first person singular) sadly reminisce about lost opportunities and long-lost friends.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
  Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
  And who was changed, and who was dead

I don’t know if Ron Fleming remembers, but years ago I put that stanza in an email I sent to him. It had been years, since our time in Denver in the late sixties, that we had seen each other. In 1985 we met in Lewistown and exchanged information about how our lives had gone in the preceding twenty years. I was moved to send him an email later, or maybe it was even an honest-to-God letter … might have been. I included those lines because the poet had stated what we so often felt, but had never expressed so well.

In the light of the flickering fire, the difference between tenor and vehicle, between actual shipwrecks and the metaphorical ones we suffer in life, becomes irrelevant. And when the friends finally fall silent, the glimmering wood turns into an image also for their aimlessly drifting thoughts. Through the agency of the fire, the outside (the ocean, the wind, and the beach) and the inside (both the inside of the old house and the thoughts of the guests assembled there) become indistinguishable:

The windows, rattling in their frames,
  The ocean, roaring up the beach,
The gusty blast, the bickering flames,
  All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part
  Of fancies floating through the brain,
The long-lost ventures of the heart,
  That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!
  They were indeed too much akin,
The drift-wood fire without that burned,
  The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

In a sense, Longfellow's poem describes its own genesis—not as the miraculous product of a "strong poet's" active individual imagination but as the joint recollection, the collective merging of voices and identities, in which it ultimately does not matter anymore who creates and who responds, who writes and who reads.

One emotion that this communications vehicle of the Internet and Facebook often raises in me is nostalgia for long ago friends in far away places. When we were together, we were young and unattached. Now we’ve made lives apart, all over the country; and we have families and children and jobs and even retirement. It has been a voyage. I long for some old shipmates. It is good to be in touch.

A fireside poem induces in the reader the same state of heightened awareness and receptivity in which it was first conceived and which it seeks to represent. The "too much akin" in Longfellow's final stanza can be read both as a joke (as if Longfellow were mocking his own transparent image-making here) as well as a less than funny reminder that all fires will eventually burn out, leaving us with little more than charred wood and what Longfellow elsewhere calls, in Palingenesis, "the ashes in our hearts."

That poem of rebirth also haunts my soul … I’ve just never turned it into a song.

  And the sea answered, with a lamentation,
Like some old prophet wailing, and it said,
  “Alas! thy youth is dead!

Perhaps this is why I so enjoy my visits to Oregon and staying on the cliffs overlooking the sea. I’m listening for the sea’s answer.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Although amber (electrostatics) and lodestone (magnetism) were known to the ancient Greeks, electrodynamics developed as a quantitative subject in less than a hundred years. Cavendish's remarkable experiments in electrostatics were done from 1771 to 1773. Coulomb's monumental researches began to be published in 1785. This marked the beginning of scientific research in electricity and magnetism on a worldwide scale.

Our own Benjamin Franklin contributed to the understanding of electricity during these years. Fifty years later Faraday was studying the effects of time-varying currents and magnetic fields. By 1864 Maxwell had published his famous paper on a dynamic theory of the electromagnetic field. Twenty-four years later (1888) Hertz published his discovery of transverse electromagnetic waves, which propagated at the same speed as light, and placed Maxwell's theory on a firm experimental footing. 

Find more in A Treatise on Light (and Color)

That takes us up to Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) that was developed in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is the relativistic quantum field theory of electrodynamics. In essence, it describes how light and matter interacts and is the first theory where full agreement between quantum mechanics and special relativity is achieved. QED mathematically describes all phenomena involving electrically charged particles interacting by means of exchange of photons and represents the quantum counterpart of classical electromagnetism giving a complete account of matter and light interaction. 

One of the founding fathers of QED, Richard Feynman, has called it "the jewel of physics" for its extremely accurate predictions of quantities like the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron, and the Lamb shift of the energy levels of hydrogen. (The Lamb shift, named after Willis Lamb, is a small difference in energy between two energy levels in electrons around an atom.)

In technical terms, QED can be described as a perturbation theory of the electromagnetic quantum vacuum. Mysterious things happen in the space and time within the limits of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Complex violations of well known limits can occur and energy and matter can appear out of nothing, as long as it is gone again within the time and space constraints given by Heisenberg. Sort of like Cinderella at midnight … the coach returns to a pumpkin.

The first formulation of a quantum theory describing radiation and matter interaction came from British scientist Paul Dirac, who (during the 1920s) was first able to compute the coefficient of spontaneous emission of an atom. Dirac described the quantization of the electromagnetic field as an ensemble of harmonic oscillators with the introduction of the concept of creation and annihilation operators of particles. 

In the following years, with contributions from Wolfgang Pauli, Eugene Wigner, Pascual Jordan, and Werner Heisenberg and an elegant formulation of quantum electrodynamics due to Enrico Fermi, physicists came to believe that, in principle, it would be possible to perform any computation for any physical process involving photons and charged particles. However, further studies by Felix Bloch with Arnold Nordsieck and Victor Weisskopf in 1937 and 1939, revealed that such computations were reliable only at a first order of perturbation theory, a problem already pointed out by Feynman’s boss at Los Alamos, Robert Oppenheimer. 

At higher orders in the series infinities emerged, making such computations meaningless and casting serious doubts on the internal consistency of the theory itself. With no solution for this problem known at the time, it appeared that a fundamental incompatibility existed between special relativity and quantum mechanics. 

(These problems with “infinities” continue to crop up in much of quantum physics and have resulted in many solutions and methods that have some doubt as to their correctness. Usually an attempt to "cancel out" the infinities is performed, although the correctness of treating infinities in this manner has not been established. Feynman developed a brilliant solution that not only eliminated the problems with infinity “blow ups,” but also yielded the most accurate results of any known physical theory.)

Near the end of his life, Richard Feynman gave a series of lectures on QED intended for the lay public. These lectures were transcribed and published as Feynman (1985), “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter,” a classic non-mathematical exposition of QED from the point of view articulated below.

The key components of Feynman's presentation of QED are three basic actions.

  • A photon goes from one place and time to another place and time.
  • An electron goes from one place and time to another place and time.
  • An electron emits or absorbs a photon at a certain place and time.
These actions are represented in a form of visual shorthand by the three basic elements of Feynman diagrams: a wavy line for the photon, a straight line for the electron and a junction of two straight lines and a wavy one for a vertex representing emission or absorption of a photon by an electron. Such a diagram is shown at the top of this article. As the diagram suggests, these interactions do follow the classical physical laws in the same manner as the balls on a pool table. Newton would be proud.

Mathematically, QED is an Abelian gauge theory with the symmetry group U. The gauge field, which mediates the interaction between the charged spin-1/2 fields, is the electromagnetic field. Using the Lagrangian method to describe the interaction was a brilliant solution. In physics, a gauge theory is a type of field theory in which the Lagrangian is invariant under a continuous group of local transformations. The Lagrangian of a dynamic system is a function that summarizes the dynamics of the system. It is named after Joseph Louis Lagrange. The concept of a Lagrangian was introduced in a reformulation of classical mechanics introduced by Joseph Louis Lagrange in 1788, known as Lagrangian mechanics.

Here we see a powerful method from classical (non-quantum) physics being used to clarify the complex details of quantum physics. This goes a long way toward resolving issues between these areas of physics, issues that even bothered the great Albert Einstein.

Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics. (He proposed the parton model -- a quantum model that included certain aspects of general relativity). For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman, jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomaonaga, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. 

He invented a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. (Again, see the figure at the beginning of this article for an example. Time is the Y axis and space is the X axis. Much more complicated diagrams were developed by Feynman to visualize many quantum interactions.) 

During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.

Fresh out of college, he assisted in the development of the atomic bomb. One of his last contributions was as a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. He held the Richard Chace Tolman professorship in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Feynman was a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures, notably a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” and the three volume publication of his undergraduate lectures, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.” Feynman also became known through his semi-autobiographical books, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” and books written about him, such as “Tuva or Bust!”

I’ve always considered Richard Feynman as my special mentor. I’ve read every one of his books and studied his lectures. His light-hearted focus on what was really going on in physics and complete absence of pretense, even though he was one of the smartest physicists since Albert Einstein, made him a very special man and something of a hero to me.

Plus, he wasn’t a bad bongo drummer. I’ll have to write about that later. Heck, I even have a collection of Tuva throat music CDs. Although I am now studying at a university in California, it is Stanford, not Cal Tech. There are plenty of people at Stanford who knew Feynman personally. I look forward to meeting them and discussing the brilliant scientist. It is one of the reasons that I am attending Stanford.

Think ... about Apple

Has Apple reached a zenith? Is it now sliding down the backside of history? It’s happened before. Once the mighty IBM stood astride the IT marketplace. IBM’s competitors were so weak that it was called "IBM and the seven dwarfs." Burroughs, Control Data (or CDC), General Electric, Honeywell, NCR, RCA, and Univac.

Who remembers those companies? GE and RCA are still around, but not in the computer business. Burroughs still has a small presence, especially in banks. Honeywell might have made your thermostat. No, these competitors were replaced with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Data General, Wang, Apollo, Prime, HP.

Then came Tandy, Atari, Commodore, WYSE, Sun, Apple, Compaq, Epson, NEC, Dell, NeXT.

The names have come. Most have gone. A few are still around. Some merged or were bought. Compaq bought DEC and was then, in turn, bought by HP.

Anyone who studies this history must see how it is impossible to predict what will happen next. New magic is pulled out of the hat while old companies fade away … some with a whimper and some with a bang.

IBM has settled in nicely as still the main mainframe seller. Sure there’s Hitachi and Fujitsu and NEC. And of course there’s the trail of Gene Amdahl from the IBM 360 to his self-named company to the modern supercomputer builders Cray and the IBM Blue Gene.

HP continues to reinvent itself. Under a set of failed leaders it has fallen and fallen from its one time top position, but there is still the likelihood it will right itself. It is currently the number one PC maker in tight completion with Lenovo who bought out IBM’s PC business and even Dell who has gone up and down in the ratings. Sony and Hitachi, Samsung and Acer and ASUS. The latest crop shows a decided Far Eastern trend.

But what of Apple. Are they becoming so last year? Is the popularity of the iPhone being overtaken by Google’s Android protégés? Is the iPad finally hitting tough competition? Without Steve Jobs has Apple run out of ideas?

No, I don’t think so. The history of Apple has always been one of small market share but phenomenal profit margins. The Apple Stores continue to be mob packed selling more dollars per square foot than any retail outlet known to man. Sure the stock got over priced. Heck, it wasn’t that long ago it was $7 a share, so $700 was a bit rich.

I did suggest one sell off last October, and – for once in my investing life – I hit the peak right on the head. Very smart of me to sell in October. But, the great conundrum of investing is, if you sell, what do you buy? I bought more Amazon and Google and even some AT&T. But I don’t really want to talk about it :-(

By the way, I did keep ten shares of Apple. Always want to keep some chips in the pot … never know when the big hand will be dealt.

No, Apple has always had some boom and bust. Someone yesterday said they heard Jobs left a ten year plan of new products and the current executives just threw that away. That’s wrong on both parts. Steve was a refiner. He would polish and shine an idea until it was brilliant. He didn’t leave a list of ten years of new ideas. Even he didn’t have a crystal ball … it just seemed like it.

And the current leadership at Apple is very competent and they are the designers and engineers that came up with everything so far. Steve was a great leader, but it was his company that succeeded. Like a great ship, he directed which way to sail, but the crew pulled on the oars and set the sails. The success is as much theirs as his.

What do I see for Apple’s future? Simple, continued success. Possibly a decline from the scary heights, but they’ll still be here in ten years and as successful as always.

Here’s some of the reasons why I think that:

“I think you still have to think differently to buy an Apple computer,” he said. “The people who buy them do think different. They are the creative spirits in this world, and they’re out to change the world. We make tools for those kinds of people.” When he stressed the word “we” in that sentence, he cupped his hands and tapped his fingers on his chest. And then, in his final peroration, he continued to stress the word “we” as he talked about Apple’s future. “We too are going to think differently and serve the people who have been buying our products from the beginning. Because a lot of people think they’re crazy, but in that craziness we see genius.” During the prolonged standing ovation, people looked at each other in awe, and a few wiped tears from their eyes. Jobs had made it very clear that he and the “we” of Apple were one.

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs (Kindle Locations 5667-5674). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs (Kindle Locations 5775-5779). Simon & Schuster, Inc. Kindle Edition.

When Jobs took over and gave his pep talk, Ive decided to stick around. But Jobs at first looked around for a world-class designer from the outside. He talked to Richard Sapper, who designed the IBM ThinkPad, and Giorgetto Giugiaro, who designed the Ferrari 250 and the Maserati Ghibli.

[That’s Jonathan Ive, the lead designer of many of Apple’s products including the MacBook Pro, iMac, MacBook Air, iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, and the iPad Mini. He is the owner of 596 design and utility patents. He is still a top leader at Apple.]

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs (Kindle Locations 5982-5984). Simon & Schuster, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Cook, the son of a shipyard worker, was raised in Robertsdale, Alabama, a small town between Mobile and Pensacola a half hour from the Gulf Coast. He majored in industrial engineering at Auburn, got a business degree at Duke, and for the next twelve years worked for IBM in the Research Triangle of North Carolina.

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs (Kindle Locations 6273-6275). Simon & Schuster, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Jobs got an email from a young man and invited him in. The applicant was nervous, and the meeting did not go well. Later that day Jobs bumped into him, dejected, sitting in the lobby. The guy asked if he could just show him one of his ideas, so Jobs looked over his shoulder and saw a little demo, using Adobe Director, of a way to fit more icons in the dock at the bottom of a screen. When the guy moved the cursor over the icons crammed into the dock, the cursor mimicked a magnifying glass and made each icon balloon bigger. “I said, ‘My God,’ and hired him on the spot,” Jobs recalled. The feature became a lovable part of Mac OSX, and the designer went on to design such things as inertial scrolling for multi-touch screens (the delightful feature that makes the screen keep gliding for a moment after you’ve finished swiping).

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs (Kindle Locations 6329-6334). Simon & Schuster, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Steve left a legacy. These people are geniuses. BUT … there are a lot of other geniuses in the business too. Companies come and companies go. Companies shine and companies fade. It is the nature of the business. Welcome to the future … brought to you each day by these shining stars. I could not be more excited to see what’s next. I won’t even venture a guess. I’ve got some ideas, but I will have to think about it more. I suggest you think about it too.

Did you know that “Think” was Thomas Watson, Sr.’s one word motto for IBM? He had it engraved on the stone steps and buildings in Poughkeepsie and Endicott. That was back in the old “black and white” days. Maybe it was more black and white back then. Now it is all glass and shiny aluminum.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Can a Mac be Hacked?

A friend on Facebook recently complained that her email had been hacked. The evidence was that people on her contact list were getting emails that weren’t from her.

Now people’s email accounts do get hacked pretty regularly. Especially if they have a trivial password, but there are other ways too, even if you have an excellent password.

 It is also possible that the email wasn’t hacked, but that the computer was hacked. In other words, she might have gotten a virus or a Trojan horse or some other kind of malware. The virus then sent her contact list to some server somewhere and some criminal then used that information for additional attacks of some kind. Sadly, it is something that occurs hundreds or even thousands of times a day.

One of her friends suggested she run a virus scan … good advice.

But my friend has a Mac and didn’t know how to run a virus scan. That is probably because, like most Mac owners, she has no anti-virus installed. Should she?

The controversy is long and bitter. Does Mac OS X need anti-malware software to protect it? Is OS X inherently safer than Windows or is it simply not popular enough for hackers to care about it?

Even the popular series of Mac vs. PC television commercials had some fun with this issue. (Remember those … what happened to them?) But there is a critical question at the heart of what can seem, on the surface, to be a trivial issue. There are points on both sides of the issue. Both sides would like you to believe that their side is the correct one, and that various actions (or inactions) should naturally come out of whether or not OS X is as prone to malware as Windows.

The Windows contingent (that is, Microsoft and their fans) would have you believe that they have problems with malware (viruses and the like) because they own the vast majority of the operating system market. This theory goes that OS X (and, by the way, Linux) systems are so small a percentage of all computer systems that they are not an attractive target for hackers. Rather than write their viruses and key-loggers for the minority, hackers don’t bother with the small stuff and instead go for the largest throat that they can find.

The OS X contingent (that is, Apple and their fans) adopt the viewpoint that OS X is simply more resistant to hackers than is Windows, because it is based on Unix (as is Linux) and Unix and its derivatives are simply more secure. This group often points to the fact that that Web servers rarely get hacked and that most Web servers run Linux; it then follows that Unix-like (*nix) systems are inherently safer to operate than Windows.

There is yet a third contingent (anti-virus software builders like McAfee and Symantec) that would have you believe that all personal (and professional) systems are prone to attack from hackers. They make this point for corporate profit reasons; if they can convince you that all systems are equally prone to attack from hackers, they will sell more software and therefore make more money. From the point of view of a person holding the anti-malware hammer, all computer systems look like malware targets.

Regardless of the reason, it is true that owners of OS X system are not often hit by viruses or other malware. The only exception (and this exception is much less common on Macs than PCs) is attacks via browsers. It must be remembered (though it rarely is) that the Internet in an inherently unsafe place and venturing there without an appropriate software condom may well be unsafe. The only question is whether or not *nix systems come with a sufficient software condom already in place from the factory.

You may wish to check my recent article on just some of the ways that virtually all modern browsers can release all kinds of personal information to web sites being visited. You will find the article here:

The practical answer is much easier than the esoteric one. To date, there have been very few problems with malware on Mac OS X systems, which is not to say that they do not exist. The known problems, though, are sufficiently rare that there are virtually no customers available for OS X anti-virus software programs. Such software exists, in sort of a halfhearted way, as do hacker exploits for things like Safari, the Apple standard browser.

This is a situation that needs watching. Do some research on your own. Pay attention to the tech press so you hear all sides. Set up a Google alert for “OS X virus” and see what comes in. You will notice if Mac owners begin to have problems with malware by the incredibly loud cries of pain from the direction of Cupertino. In the end, only you can answer this question, and to do so you need to stay informed. When you begin to feel that you have a real reason to worry about malware, because of the prevalence of malware problems around you, it will be time to start searching for some OS X anti-virus software to buy. I know Symantec and others would be willing to sell it to you.

Familial Tremor

This is a note I originally wrote and published on Facebook on Sept. 8, 2010. I have not published it here to a wider audience, at least until now, because it is highly personal in nature. But, it seems I've written about plenty that is highly personal in nature, so why hold back. Certainly there are reasons to be careful exposing medical facts to the general public. It can cause all kinds of problems with insurance and "pre-existing conditions." That is no longer a problem for me since I'm now on Medicare. So, what the heck, here it is. All my faults and weaknesses revealed to everyone.

No family reunion would be complete without my comparison of the progress of our family affliction. It is called Familial Tremor, although that is a general term for many different ailments that are inherited including Bell’s palsy. Our case is a mild form of the tremor.

Tremors can affect people of any age, but are more common in older people. A familial tremor is usually a relatively benign condition, affecting movement or voice quality but seldom having any other effects. It involves a rhythmic, moderately rapid tremor (shaking) of voluntary muscles.

Purposeful movements may make the tremors worse. There may be difficulty holding or using small objects such as pens and eating utensils. Emotional stress may also increase the tremors. Over time, the tremors may affect the hands, arms, head, voice box (larynx), eyelids, or other muscles, but rarely involve the legs or feet. In children, these tremors are usually limited to the hands.

The exact cause is unknown, but the fact that it is inherited suggests a genetic cause. It is usually dominant, which means that 50% of an affected person’s children will be affected. If you inherit one copy of the gene from either parent, you will have the disorder.

I inherited the affliction from my dad. So here I am with my dad, my brother, and my sister, and we are all “a shakin’.” My grandfather had it the worst of anyone in the family. He would hold the coffee cup with two hands, and still spill more than he drank. Still, he was in his eighties, and who doesn't shake at that age?

My brother had it at an early age. I remember when I first got out of the navy and drove through Billings on the way to Spokane, Washington. I arrived at my brother’s early in the morning and we went out to breakfast at some local restaurant. His hands were so shaky he could hardly drink his coffee. Now I know how he feels. Sometimes I have to use two hands to hold the spoon when I eat soup.

My sister probably has the least impact from the disease. She is hardly bothered at all. I’m somewhere in the middle. As I’ve grown older, it has definitely gotten worse. When I’m typing on the computer, my head bobs like a bobble doll on the dashboard.  My penmanship never was very good, but it is drastically affected by the tremors, and there are times, especially under stress, when my hands shake so bad I can’t even type. (Do you notice the pattern here, I spend most of my life typing on a computer – that is what programmers do, you know!)

As is often the case, I’ve grown so used to the affliction that I hardly notice the behavior until someone else points it out. Certainly, some days are worse than others -- and then I notice. When I was in Alaska, I was trying to show something about operating systems and API’s to Chuck to explain how a GUI gets information from the basic file system API in Windows and the Mac OS. I was trying to use the terminal or text interface and show the output of Windows "dir" and Mac Unix "ls" commands and compare the output of those commands to the Windows Explorer and Mac Finder GUI screens. My hands shook so bad I could not type in my password to access my computer. Happily, days like that don't occur often.

My mother had Alzheimer’s. (Another inherited malady. Let’s hope I dodge that bullet.) Her best times were in the morning. That is typical of Alzheimer’s and is called sunrise syndrome. My palsy is just the opposite; I have it worst in the morning. That's one reason I only drink decaf coffee (and Pepsi).

Right now I’m waiting for 10:00 AM (MDT). At that time, I will be on a conference call to Boulder and presenting the monthly status of our development work on IBM software. I have good news for the meeting, but I will have to struggle not to sound like Katharine Hepburn.

Now I know we all struggle in life, and those struggles often shape us into who we are. The apostle Paul wrote of how he asked the Lord many times to remove the “thorn in his side.” But the Lord’s answer was that the affliction served His purpose, and so Paul learned to live with it. I laugh when I hear “whatever doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger” because I know it is true. Steel is tempered by the heat and the cold. I just pray Lord that I am strong enough now and don't require more temporing!

You know you have to laugh to keep from crying. Still, my life has had much more to laugh about than cry, so I am content. And now I had better get to the phone and connect to that meeting.


iPhone ... battery is solid, gray shape
It has been a while since I wrote about Science and Technology, or even Art and Design. This is the STEAMD blog, after all. OK, a little science (plus, as usual, a little autobiography). I’ve been preparing for a visit with Linda’s dad and his friend. We planned to go up to Loveland for lunch. Ardys had asked about e-readers and if they could duplicate “big print books.” Of course, they can. All e-readers, including the Kindle, my favorite, have adjustable font size and can display big print.

I planned to demonstrate that to her. In preparation, I check out my Kindle and found the battery nearly discharged. Now Kindle e-readers use “e-paper.” There are a number of features of e-paper that make it ideal for an e-reader. One is the fact that it is very readable in direct sun light. As you all know, the iPad or iPhone or MacBook or any similar technology from any other manufacturer, is washed out and hard to read in the direct sun.

Another useful feature of e-paper is that power is not required to maintain a page. If there is no backlight, then the only time e-paper uses power is to change the page. So a Kindle device can last for weeks with a single battery charge.

Not so with most other portable devices. Battery life has been an issue, a selling point, and a driven goal to extend since the first unplugged power tools appeared on the market place. 

I was provided with several IBM ThinkPads through the years. I would always order them with the extra large battery. In the IBM designs, the extra cells forced the battery case to extend out the back. HP chose to add more battery mass downward, providing a built-in tilt to the keyboard. My Ford Flex, which is filled with electrical gadgets, has a battery bigger than a breadbox … and if it ever fails, I suspect I’ll learn it is one of the most expensive made.

World War II submarines had a room filled with lead-acid batteries before the nuclear power submarine provided much longer lasting power. Many a WWII submarine epic involved the need to surface and charge the batteries using the diesel engines.

I recall the early yard tools using Nichol-Cadmium or Ni-Cad batteries. They had an unfortunate “memory” effect that if they weren’t run all the way down in discharge, then they would get lazy and not provide as much power before giving up. If you left your lawn clipper always plugged in, and only used it sparingly, the Ni-Cads would not provide deep power on a day when a lot of clipping was desired.

This problem with Ni-Cads has been substantially improved, but still many insist that batteries should be fully discharged before recharging.

The smartphone market revolves around one question: how do you fit all-day access to all of a consumer's favorite apps and services comfortably into one hand? (The tablet market? Two hands.) As mobile devices have increased in power, the demand for longer lasting batteries has only increased.

No smartphone manufacturer has managed to provide the solution fully, because they all face a fundamental dilemma. The electronics that enable faster performance, higher-speed data, better video and gaming, a more vivid and detailed screen, etc., are moving at the speed of Moore's Law.

The scientists and engineers have been working on the problem. The best solution so far is a battery type called Lithium ion. Yet even the lithium ion (Li-ion) pouch cell batteries that power today’s devices can't keep up. Little wonder that battery life is the biggest complaint of smartphone users!

The feature vs. run-time battle this imposes on smartphone designers is why the new iPad came in thicker and heavier than its predecessor. The battery needed to power the Retina Display, 4G LTE, and general and graphic processing improvements is 70 percent bigger and heavier. Even so, the new iPad's battery life (run-time) is slightly less than that of the iPad 2. The new iPhone 5 provided a slightly larger battery size, mainly through the bigger case dimensions and the elimination of the bulky 30-pin connector, than the iPhone 4s. The result was that it demonstrates marginally longer battery life than its predecessor, even though the new iPhone is faster and more powerful with a bigger display and LTE network.

Li-ion battery constraints go a long way toward explaining why smartphone vendors spend millions on incremental design advantages in a market that's moving with blinding speed. If you're trying to figure out what your iPhone 6 -- or your next Android device or Windows Phone -- is going to look like, here are six rules you need to know about batteries. Just as Christians follow the Ten Commandments and Libertarians rave about the Bill of Rights, battery designers and engineers must follow these six rubrics as they balance the design of a battery and the size and shape of the device it will be installed in.

1. Battery in a bag

A Li-ion pouch cell is a sealed bag containing carefully layered anode and cathode sheets, separators between them, and -- permeating all of these layers -- a liquid electrolyte. Although tablet batteries comprise several cells (three in the new iPad), smartphones are generally powered by single cells. Either way, at one end of the battery, a printed circuit board (PCB) is connected to the positive and negative terminals of each cell and provides active protection against short circuits, overcharge, and forced discharge. Li-ion pouch cells tend to be fragile and rely on the smartphone case for protection, and so officially are not user-replaceable.

Three cells of an iPad Li-ion battery

2. Squeezing in run-time

The energy density of a Li-ion pouch cell determines how much run-time you can pack into a given size (volumetric) or weight (gravimetric). Li-ion technology hit the market in 1991. Since then, processor transistor count has increased more than a thousand-fold, Li-ion energy density only threefold. Denser electronics are what make dazzling features possible, but they draw ever more power. Unfortunately, battery manufacturers are having a harder and harder time increasing energy density. This is why non-replaceable Li-ion pouch batteries are popular with smartphone and tablet designers. Without the protective case needed to make a battery safe for consumers to handle -- which does nothing for energy capacity -- they are thinner and pack more run-time into a smaller space.

In this regard, the non-user-replaceable batteries that Apple has used since the original iPhone were more an engineering design point than the artistic bent that many complained drove Steve Jobs and his products. Yes, a non-removable battery helped make all the iPhones smooth and svelte, but it was a real positive impact on the battery life to use the phone itself as the battery’s container.

3. The length, width, and thickness of cells

Energy density is affected by the thickness and the ratio between width (X) and length (Y) of a Li-ion pouch cell. Volumetric energy density falls off as the pouch gets thinner because the packaging takes up a higher percentage of battery volume. The optimal X-Y ratio arises because when the PCB is installed on the short edge of a narrow battery, there's more room for the active materials (anode and cathode) that actually store energy. All other things being equal, a narrow, thicker battery will deliver better volumetric energy density than a more square one. The longer length of the new iPhone helped provide a longer battery. See how it all fits together? And you thought the bigger iPhone screen was just for HD video!
(An interesting Apple patent reveals ways to mold batteries in more complex shapes to fit into places like the bezel that are presently impossible to use.)

4. The necessity of keeping cool

Li-ion pouch cells don't like it hot -- a common condition for smartphones, as anyone who's ever had to wait out the "cool down" error message knows. The standard Li-ion chemistry depends on an electrolyte that reacts with residual moisture to create hydrofluoric acid (HF), the most corrosive of all chemical compounds. HF can actually eat through most metals and even glass.

Like all chemical reactions, this process doubles in speed with every increase in temperature of 10 degrees Celsius. The result is reduced calendar and cycle life: not only does run-time degrade with simple age, but each charge and discharge further reduces it, until the battery just doesn't last long enough between charges. Worse, Li-ion cells generate heat themselves during charge and discharge: the more power your smartphone calls for or the faster you charge it, the hotter the battery gets.

5. Building a smartphone

Three-layer or "carve-out"? The Motorola Droid Razr line (both Razr and Razr Maxx) is an example of the three-layer approach to smartphone design: screen, circuitry, and battery. The iPhone 4 comprises two layers -- screen and electronics -- with a space carved out of the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) for the battery. In either case, a bigger screen means room for a bigger battery. Regardless of the other advantages of each approach, the narrower, thicker battery possible with Apple’s carve-out approach will offer higher energy density. In a three-layer design, it's also more difficult to shield the battery from components that generate heat and thus shorten battery life. (The three layer design, on the other hand, may be cheaper to build and easier to repair. All engineering is a trade-off.)

6. Chemistry: Wild card of the deck

Improvements in Li-ion chemistry may offer dramatic increases in energy density, giving smartphone designers more choices in the feature vs. battery life battle. There's a lot of promising research into new active materials and some new solutions already on the market. One of these uses a new Li-imide electrolyte that doesn't generate hydrofluoric acid and thus delivers a dramatic improvement in thermal stability and battery life. It also permits effectively thinner batteries by eliminating most of the swelling in thickness characteristic of current Li-ion pouch cells over their useful life, which forces designers to sacrifice cavity space to accommodate the swelling.

Don't expect dramatic departures in design from Apple or any other smartphone vendor until Li-ion pouch cells take the next step. This could come as soon as 12 to 18 months from now. New active materials (for example, silicon anode and high voltage/high capacity cathodes) combined with the new electrolyte mentioned above could deliver a 20 percent boost in run-time per charge in the same size battery. For the eventual iPhone 6, such a battery would give Apple more flexibility to consider faster processors, power hungrier displays, and more apps without sacrificing run time, and make it easier to maintain the iPhone's famously sleek appearance.

In the meantime, keep your eye on Li-ion battery news with the six things above in mind, and you'll have a better idea of what to expect from the next generation of iPhone or Android smartphones. I look forward to the time that I don’t have to charge my iPhone any more often than I charge by Kindle reader. In the meantime, I’m on the lookout for one of those solar cell phone chargers so I can take my iPhone deep into the mountains and not have to look around for a current bush. That will be the ticket. There I’ll be; deep in the wilderness, enjoying the wildlife and natural scenery, without any modern technology to distract me. Suddenly, my phone rings. “Can you pick up a loaf of bread on the way home?” “Honey, I’m deep in the wilderness with no access to modern technology. Where am I going to find bread?”

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Day in the Life

I love the iPod random play function or “shuffle.” It’s like listening to the radio … no idea what song is coming next … without any of those annoying advertisements. I was at the club, climbing a steep hill on the treadmill, and enjoying the random tune selection from a playlist I created for a couple of high school reunions. I call the list “60’s Music.” It is actually songs from about 1955 to 1973. That’s the music that the graduates of high school in the sixties would be familiar with and that would remind them of good times.

Included in that time frame is the entire catalog of the Beatles, including the Sgt. Peppers album, which, itself, includes “A Day in the Life.” I remember when I was stationed in Norfolk back in the late sixties and early seventies, I would listen the “The History of Rock and Roll,” a radio documentary originally syndicated in 1960. One of the lengthiest documentaries of any medium (36 hours in the 1969 version, 52 hours each for the 1978 and 1981 versions), The History of Rock & Roll is a definitive history of the Rock and Roll genre, stretching from the early 1950s to its day. The "rockumentary," as producers Bill Drake and Gene Chenault called it, featured hundreds of interviews and comments from numerous rock artists and people involved with rock and roll. 

(I think I have most if not all of that rockumentary on reel-to-reel tape. I recorded it off the radio. I'd better dig into my vault.)

It concluded with a “chart sweep,” which eventually listed what was considered at that point the top rock and roll songs of all time. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys was number two, and the top rock and roll song of all time was … of course … “A Day in the Life.”

This was the final track on the Beatles most influential album. (Although I suppose that is a bit arguable. Certainly the Beatles are rock and roll’s most influential artists … the possible argument is which album.)

As I sweated and listened today, my pleasant surprise was the random selection of Day in the Life. Right away I thought, “I’ve got to write about this song.”

The song is listed as being written by Lennon and McCartney, although we know that many individually written songs still got the joint authorship label. “Day in the Life” was a very unusual collaboration. The first two verses, and the last, were written, words and music, by John Lennon. However, the middle section is the work of Paul McCartney. Part of the genius of the song is how these two disparate parts are combined into a single song via a strange and movie sound track-ish orchestral bridge.

History tells us the song’s structure was primarily the work of Paul and that he wrote the “Love to turn you on” phrase. Especially when you listen with earphones, you note the prominence of the bass lines and how they really provide the overall song structure. This seems good evidence to me of Paul’s hand in the overall song development.

As Timothy Leary was suggesting at the time to tune in, turn on, and drop out, this song offers the listening public to be turned on. This and other drug reference suspicions led to the song being banned on some radio stations.

I’m certain the song was often listened to in the heightened sense of a good “turn on.” It has always been one of the most interesting songs to me personally. I’ve dug into its form and structure as I’ve tried to analyze and make sense of the music and lyrics.

It is well known that John was inspired by reading of the death of a friend, Guinness heir Tara Browne, who died when he smashed his Lotus into a parked van. John recounted later how he read the account in the local newspaper, the Daily Mail. He also wrote about a rather pedestrian story with the typical newspaper twist where the Blackburn Roads Surveyor had counted 4000 holes in the roads of Blackburn and commented that the volume of material needed to fill them in was enough to fill the Albert Hall ... something the Beatles had done on occasion with music fans. Paul’s section was more of a childhood memory about waking to a rather typical and boring day.

Let’s start at the beginning … a simple chord progression … G … Bm … Em add the 7th on John’s guitar; then a transition to C major chord on the piano played by Paul.

The simple I:G modulating to Em and then the IV: C to basically a V:D progression hidden in an Am9 is the heart of John’s work.

The opening verse demonstrates John’s interest in newspapers and the second verse is somewhat autobiographical recalling a movie that John appeared in … and from which he adopted his later trademark round wire-rimmed glasses. Some have studied these lyrics and found all kinds of psychological and sociological references, but I just see the simple story being told … just a day in John’s life.

“Having read the book” becomes “I’d love to turn you on” reinforced by a pounding E chord. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the rush of an orchestra starts climbing from a low E in a glissando sweep up several octaves ending by returning to the pounding E chord. This bridge lasts a total of 24 measures, and it is my understanding that Paul directed the orchestra sweep with the musicians all playing at their personal discretion. This was the sound of a 40-piece orchestra. Paul had requested a 90 piece musical ensemble, and the engineers overdubbed to increase the depth of the sound.

The building tension of the rising orchestra figure is suddenly interrupted and "A Day in the Life" enters a new song section. The peppy, steady, new rhythmic feel is provided primarily by the piano and drums. An alarm clock sound effect is heard, and Paul McCartney sings about waking up and hurrying to the bus.

This interlude is done in the key of E including D and B. Paul’s verses end with a chorale “ah” which transitions to a orchestral slide that brings us back around to the key of G as John finishes the song with another story from the news. This transition represents the dream from Paul’s lyrics, and is the most “trippy” orchestral sequence of the three in the song.

The horns rather than the strings dominate the orchestra this time, and the volume keeps increasing drowning out the chorale “ahs” until the break back to G. (The remix by George Martin for the “Love” album has the strings more prominent than in the original.)

Following John’s last verse, a repeat of the original orchestral rise occurs. The repetition of the bridge is virtually a carbon copy of the first transition, but its destination is very different. The crescendo concludes with the balance of one measure's worth of dramatic silence followed by the final E-Major chord.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Mal Evans (friend, road manager, assistant, gofer ...) shared three different pianos, with George Martin on the harmonium, and all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The final chord was made to ring out for over forty seconds by increasing the recording sound level as the vibration faded out. Towards the end of the chord the recording level was so high that listeners can hear the sounds of the studio, including rustling papers and a squeaking chair. This final chord stretches out for what seems an impossible interval. Time seems to just stop as you listen to the continuing ring of the powerful chord … then the final silence??

No, there is more sonic high jinx from the Fab Four. If you think about it, the end of the album was really the reprise of the introductory album namesake song, and “A Day in the Life” is more of an encore. So, no surprise that, after the final end of the extended E-Major chord, there are more sonic artifacts. There is a dog’s whistle, beyond the range of human hearing and then a final phrase recorded in the last groove of the vinyl, designed to repeat over and over if the turntable was a manual version.

This is one point where an iPod shuffle fails. You have to set up iTunes very carefully to hear the final part of the original album. Maybe a downloaded digital copy is not meant to have this final joke. The anticlimactic coda is intended only for those listening to the original vinyl format on a pure, manual turntable.

Younger readers may have to ask their elders just what means this word called “vinyl” or “turntable.”

I remember listening to that final phrase at the end of the album in a trailer in Libby, Montana, in 1967. We all sat around, shocked by what we had just heard, and no one would get up and reset the turntable arm for several minutes. My friend, Ron Fleming, had just bought the album and we heard it together for the first time in our little home in Libby. Gary Hornseth was there, and I think some other band members. We were all awe struck.

We were then, as I still am, awe struck.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Technologist Speaks on Security

I’ve always been intrigued by titles and set expectations for my career based on these terms. As a youngster, my goal was to be a scientist. I ended up an engineer … I guess that’s pretty close. In fact, at one time, at IBM, my formal titles was Senior Associate Engineer / Scientist. So, in that regard, I made it.

I’ve been an electronics engineer, a programmer, a software engineer, an instructor / course developer as well as an adjunct professor. I’ve been a project manager and even a senior technical staff member … the strangest title of all.

But, as I’ve collected my thoughts and tried to merge all those titles into a single, meaningful term, I’ve arrived at this: I’m a technologist. That fits. It sort of encompasses all the engineering and programming and teaching stuff into a single title.

One thing noticed in this modern age is how well young people adapt to technology. Of course, even senior citizens use email and surf the web, but the ease with which the young mind seems to grasp technology is often noted by about everyone that notices.

I’m an exception. I’m an old guy that gets technology. Now I doubt I understand it as well as a twenty-something that lives and breaths computers and web sites and RSS, etc. But I’m pretty well versed in the technology of the times. There’s always something new and I’m not a Silicon Valley guru, more of a Colorado guru. But I do get along with this stuff pretty well, although … sometimes … I’m as stumped as anyone.

I was recently delving into HTML as I tried to clean up a mess that an automatic HTML tool had made. One “feature,” if you can call it that of these simple editors that automatically create HTML from plain text is that the various commands to create specific fonts and formats, etc. are repeated for each paragraph. Lots of </span> to identify the individual sections of text. The tool didn’t even recognize where to use <div>.

Being somewhat compulsive, I was deep into the HTML source, editing the commands manually and cleaning up what was a giant mess of automatic programming. That got me to thinking about HTML and browsers and security … security is always on my mind as I concern myself with how easy it would be for hackers to access and bring down our utility grids and power plants … but that’s for another note at another time.

This time I was thinking about privacy and all the ways our information is released as we surf the web. Most of you know that it is dangerous to download a program to your computer unless your pretty sure it is not a dangerous program or malware that would compromise your computer and all the information on it.

Well, do you know how a web page appears in your browser? As I said, I’m a technologist. I can tell you how. You download a program to your computer. The program is written in HTML, and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and JavaScript, and possibly several other languages, and it is downloaded to your browser for display.

We all know how complex web pages can be and how they can provide services and views for the user with powerful features like changing part of the page when your mouse hovers over it or showing videos and playing music.

What you may not realize is how those same browsers can give out all kinds of private information to the web site that knows how to ask. The Internet was designed to deliver information, and you might be surprised just how much personal information may be provided due to security flaws that no one seems to be in a hurry to fix. I think that, if the general public knew just how much personal information they unwittingly provide anytime they connect to a web site, they would be a lot more careful in their browsing. If they click just one time on a suspicious web site, even more personal information including their name, hometown, school, marital status, lists of friends, photos, what other websites they are logged into, their bank, credit union are all provided to the web site, and they even open up access behind their companies firewalls and private networks.

Today’s popular browsers, from Internet Explorer to Firefox to Chrome to Safari all have flaws that open up that information to any web site contacted. Several new security features have been added to browsers over recent years, including automatic updating and protection from malware, yet these basic attacks still are not blocked. It will take some changes in browsers and Internet standards to close all these open doors … open to the next burglar that walks by.

Let me give some examples. These attacks use normal web page commands, so they are not immediately identified as an assault on your personal information. They take advantage of features of the Internet intended to make web pages easier to use.

Here is one example. HTML allows a web site to provide graphics and pictures actually loaded from another web site. For example, you may be connected to and it may contain HTML code such as this:

<img src= "http://some-other-web-site/image.png”>

This instructs the visiting browser to send a web request to this other website automatically to load the image. The developer may add some JavaScript to verify that the image loaded successfully or if there was an error:

<img src= "http://some-other-web-site/image.png"
onload= “successful()” onerror= “error()”>

If the image loaded correctly, the successful() subroutine is executed. If there was an error, then the error code is run. This is a perfectly normal practice and quite useful.

But suppose the image file is only available if the user is logged onto the website. For example, the image could be loaded from Facebook or Twitter or a local bank web site. That would inform the original website of the existence of the login.

In fact, loading a possibly bogus image is not necessary. This code is even more direct:

<img src= "http://some-other-web-site/loggedin.png"
onload= “loggedIn()” onerror= “notLoggedIn()”>

This can be used to discover what social websites, email sites, and basically any other web site the user is logged into. A series of similar instructions in the web page being viewed could probe all the possible sites that the user might be … well … using.

Now let's assume the malicious website owner might want to go one step further and determine the name of the person visiting the site. Assume that the visitor is logged into a social site such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. It is possible to create an invisible frame that is located under the cursor using the iframe command and then, when the visitor clicks anywhere on the web page, the invisible frame will execute an FB "Like" or a Google+ "+1" command. This is called "clickjacking." After tricking the user into taking this action, they can check on Twitter or Facebook to see "User X Followed you" or "User X liked Page Y." Now the unscrupulous web site knows the name of "User X."

There’s a lot more that can be determined from this and similar attacks. It is the use of social websites which users are often continuously logged into that allows all kinds of information to be mined from an unsuspecting user. As I described, the seemingly innocuous “Like” in Facebook can be activated by unscrupulous web site designers to determine all kinds of personal information.

Setting high privacy limits on social web sites helps, but is not a guarantee. Things on the web are always in flux and most people treat social websites as big parties and share all kinds of personal information, little suspecting just how many illegitimate uses can be made of that information.

Remember, when you browse a web site, any website, you are allowing that code to be run on your computer and due to weaknesses and rather dubious features of web browsers, the web site can determine a lot of personal information from some simple and clever programming.

Interestingly, the young people of today, those that I started by saying that they had an intuitive grasp of technology, they don’t seem to be concerned about this leakage of private information to surreptitious web sites. They seem perfectly happy with releasing all this private information to “who knows whom.” Maybe they do understand the technology.

I could write another long article why no one seems to be interested in closing these security holes in popular browsers. I could also go on and on about more exploits that open up your private information from the misuses of the iframe command to problems with old versions of the Secure Socket Layer protocol.

I guess in a day and age where people are willing to put their confidential information up into the cloud, believing all the assurances of the vendors that nothing can go wrong … go wrong ……go wrong … go wrong …

Sorry about that. The next release will fix that bug.

What really worries me is when the criminals start targeting the banking logins of users out there. Bad news. They already have. First they get your name. Then they find out what bank you use. If your secret password is the names of your children, they’ll soon find that out when they gain access to your Facebook account. Name of your pet; mother’s maiden name; first school you attended; here’s my favorite: birthday! Think of all the people that post their birthday on Facebook of Google +.

We now live in a technological society, a technical neighborhood. I see all these people leaving their technological doors, not just unlocked, but wide open. It’s a good time for burglars.

Maybe my next career will be as a computer security consultant. I think that business will be booming soon.