Wednesday, July 31, 2013


I’m a bookie … a book-worm. I just love the printed page. I’ve been consuming the written word and hanging out at libraries since I was about ten years old, and I’ve read literally thousands of books.

Long books don’t scare me. I’ve read my way through many thousand-pagers from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Count Lev Nikolayevich (Leo) Tolstoy. (What’s with these long-winded Russians, anyway?)

Fiction and non-fiction, they’re all fair game and rather than mounting the heads in my study, I keep the entire carcass on shelves in the basement, family room, office, library, and bedroom. (I don’t actually have any shelves in the bedroom, but the books are piled on the nightstand, the headboard, and even next to the bed. By the way, I don’t have a TV in my bedroom either. There are only three things that go on in there.)

Books are pretty old technology. In fact, at IBM Printing Systems, we had a poster saying that printing was the only technology actually required for civilization. Word of mouth and hand scribed books were all humankind had for centuries until the invention of an improved movable type mechanical printing technology credited to the German printer Johannes Gutenberg around 1450 that brought this technology to the west.

Actually, the world's first movable type printing technology was invented and developed in China by the Han Chinese printer Bi Sheng between the years 1041 and 1048. In Korea, the movable metal type printing technique was invented in the early thirteenth century during the Goryeo Dynasty. But it was Gutenberg that started the revolution for our culture.

There have been many improvements in printing over the years including the modern digital printer of which IBM Printing Systems was a key vendor. Most of the statements and bills printed in the U.S. are printed on large web printers built by the IBM division in Boulder, at least before we were sold to Ricoh in 2007. For example, all IRS refund checks are printed on IBM 4100 printers.

But it is the technological transition from the printed page to other media that is the subject of this essay. With the advent of the Internet, a fellow baby-boomer, Michael S. Hart, born in the important year of 1947, led a project to put books onto the internet. He died in 2011, but his organization, apply called “Project Gutenberg,” currently has 42,000 free e-books online. He is credited with inventing e-books in 1971, although text online is about as old as computers themselves … which date from around the same year as Michael and my birth, although the early versions only stored numbers.

I just returned from a week-long trip through Wyoming and Montana. As is my common practice, I made good use of the Apple app, “Audiobooks,” during the long drives. My friend, William, was along on this journey and he had not experienced this method of “reading.” One thing that surprised him was the length of the audio books. We were listening to “The Skylark of Space,” a novel written while still in graduate school by the very influential early science fiction writer, E.E. “Doc” Smith. That reading is over nine hours. So it really helps the time pass as you drive across the open spaces we have in abundance out here in the west.

“Audiobooks” are all in the public domain. That means they are old enough that the copyrights have expired and they are free. (“Skylark was first published in 1920, although there have been many reprints since.) The most popular series on that application are Sherlock Holmes and we’ve listened to all of those stories numerous times on our trips. Linda and I started with books on tape back in the ninties: cassettes that we would purchase with books and sometimes dramas such as old time radio programs. At that time cassette players were the state of the art in automobiles.

Later, when CDs arrived, we actually purchased cars with stereos that played both tapes and CDs to continue to support our expanding library. (These days only my little two-seater still has the ability to play both forms, something I paid extra for when I purchased it.) We own about two hundred CDs and tapes of books, but — unfortunately — we’ve read (heard) all of these, some several times. So we’re always on the search for more.

I download the audio books to my iPhone and then play them through the bluetooth interface on the Blue Bus. I could load them onto the hard disk in the Bus … it’s a 160 GB capacity, so there’s room for plenty of books and music, but it is a hassle to load new stuff all the time because it is not connected to the internet. (My Flex is connected. It uploads maintenance data to the internet, but it is a one-way connection via the blue-toothed iPhone. Can’t download to the bus. I have to remove the iPod and sync it with iTunes to put new books or music on it.)

I have a limited supply of these spoken books while driving since I don’t purchase a lot of audio books these days due to my religious convictions: I’m a devout cheapskate. Audio books are limited in supply and usually rather premium priced. Therefore, I stick with the free variety, but still get a good selection of authors from the ancient sci-fi of Doc Smith to modern writers such as Harry Harrison, Philip K. Dick, and even some Asimov. Plus plenty of old classics.

E-books, on the other hand, are a bargain, typically cheaper than their paper cousins. There are many choices from Apple iBooks to the Nook format to basic computer files like html and postscript, but the application I’ve pretty much adopted is Amazon’s Kindle. I have a Kindle app on my iPhone, my iPad, my Mac Air, as well as a couple of the Amazon tablets around the house. (You know you can read on the original Kindle in the bright sun shine, so that’s the one I take to the beach.)

When I travel, I always take three computers: the mobile iPhone, which most don’t consider a computer, but rather a phone, however they are wrong, it IS a computer; my Mac Air in case I need to do some serious typing; and an iPad. It is the latter that is my favorite reader since it matches the form factor of a book most accurately. What a simple read it is from the bright-colored page. And the ability to carry most of your library in a little bag … I think I may have died and gone to heaven. Certainly I never had anything like this when I traveled for IBM. I would carry one or two books that were carefully selected to match the length of the trip. One secret of an experienced traveler is knowing how to pack light … and books are not light.

So here on my iPad I have a library of about 40 books currently loaded and access to the cloud where about another 60 reside. Plus,I can always buy a book with a single click if something catches my eye.

The funny thing about e-books is that, even though they are very convenient to carry on computer or phone, they don’t go on your book shelf. And that’s important to me. I like to put the books I’ve read on display like a hunter showing his trophies. In fact, about a dozen times now, I’ve purchased both the hard copy and the e-book. I read the e-book, and I put the hard copy on my shelf. I’ve done that with several texts and non fiction books and I’ve even continued my collection of “The Year’s Best Science Fiction” by purchasing volumes 28, 29, and this year’s “30” in hard copy. I have every one of those annual anthologies except for volume one. I started buying the books in 1984 with volume two, and bought the new release every summer when it was published for the last 29 years. I once checked on eBay to see if I could complete the collection, but volume one was selling for around $300, and I didn’t want to complete the collection that much … remember my religious convictions. The last three volumes I've purchased the hard copy for the book shelf and the e-book for my reader. I know I'm a heretic, but convenience can trump "tight-wad."

Yet, even with competition from e-books and audio books, the physical print book hasn’t died. Some have predicted that hard copy books will be gone by 2015, and others have said that e-books and other high tech reading is just a fad and will soon disappear like the hula-hoop. Nope. Neither will happen.

Instead, something interesting is occurring. More people are reading than ever before, and it may be that rather than driving print books into extinction, the two forms are complementing each other in a synergistic way, one helping to boost the other. It may be that the more you read, in either print or electronic form, the more you want to read.

Here are some facts from the latest “Year’s Best ….” The average American adult read seventeen books in 2012, the highest since the Gallup Poll people began tracking the figure in 1990. A Pew Research Center survey said the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose over the past year, from 16 percent to 23 percent. But 89 percent of regular book readers said that they had also read at least one printed book during the preceding twelve months.

Revenue for adult hardcover books is up 8.3 percent during the first half of 2012 and is over $2 billion. Paperback sales were up 5.2 percent, although the so called “mass-market” paperbacks have declined suggesting that is where the e-book growth is cannibalizing paperbacks. During the same period, sales of young adult and children’s books grew by 12 percent.

According to Nicholas Carr, writing in The Wall Street Journal, “Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather then replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like audio books — a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.”

The Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell during 2012, to 34 percent, still impressive, but a decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years. Sales of dedicated e-readers such as the Kindle reader from Amazon dropped 36 percent in 2012 and the Nook by Barnes and Noble was discontinued, while sales of tablet computers such as the iPad and the Kindle Fire exploded. Plus, there are Kindle and Nook and other free apps for computers and mobile devices galore.

Not that e-books are going away, just the reader market is changing. A survey by children’s publisher Scholastic Inc. indicated that 46 percent of responding kids aged nine to seventeen had read an e-book, and that around half of those who have not yet read an e-book say that they want to do so, going on to state that the rise of iPads and other tablets has helped to vastly expand the availability of picture books and other children’s books in electronic format. But 80 percent of those kids who read an e-book in 2012, ALSO read a print book.

My guess is that in the future, rather than one mode driving the other out of existence, most readers will buy books both in electronic and print forms, choosing one format or the other depending on circumstances, convenience, their needs of the moment, even their whim. Book stores and marketing will change with a switch to the Internet continuing, but I predict the resurgence of local books stores and second hand book stores even as the large chains struggle and fail. To each his own. Amazon began the entire online merchandising selling books, and now is replacing Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards as retail becomes digital on the world wide web. But the products will be a mixture of physical and virtual. There are strong indications that in some cases people will buy both e-book and print versions of the same book. Just imagine such a crazy book person. Maybe you know one? For publishers and authors, it is really good news. It appears that the old saying is true, “a rising tide floats all boats.”

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Man on the Moon

Everyone remembers where they were at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time (18:30 UTC) on Friday, November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot. I was in the backyard of my grandparent’s home. It was lunch break from school and I drove over to my grandma’s for lunch. She was the best cook. I had just pulled up in the backyard and had the car radio playing. Back then it was AM only. That’s when I first heard the news. I went inside and turned on the television and watched Walter Cronkite giving updates. A sad day.

It was much happier on this day, exactly 44 years ago, a Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 20:18 UTC, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first touched down at the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. I was in the Navy, stationed on board the U.S.S. Vulcan. I had duty that weekend, so I was on the ship. I remember watching on the big color TV in the Electronics Shop. The mobile canteen or “Roach Coach” had just driven up on the pier and I went out to get a sandwich and a soda. A guy was fishing from the pier. I asked him, “Do you know what’s happening?” He replied, “Sure, they’re really biting.” I remember that part better than the actual landing.

This concluded the “space race” set in motion by JFK less than ten years previously when he challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon during the decade. It was a race against the Russians who had a substantial lead having put the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit and the first Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, up there too.

It wasn’t really about conquering space. I mean, that made a nice, uplifting theme. But, no, the race was really about missiles and ICBMs. Each country, with its own captured rocket scientists from Nazi Germany, was racing to put atomic bombs on the tops of missiles and win the race that really mattered to the national leaders.

Make no doubt about it. The Russians were ahead. Through our faulty reconnaissance and spying (remember the U-2), we thought they had hundreds of missiles when they really only had less than a dozen. Plus, and this was completely unknown to us, they had not figured out reentry. Any Soviet atomic warhead descending from outer space would have burned up in the atmosphere. We actually had the lead there since we had invented the heat shield.

Because our missiles had limited range, we put some in Turkey, on the Russian doorstep. Russia responded by putting their missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy inherited the bay of pigs plan, and then executed it very poorly. After that national disgrace and the following missile crisis where we came the closest ever to testing just how well those atomic missiles would work, Kennedy was searching for something to restore his and the United State’s reputation. After all, we were the leader of the free world and no Commies were going to beat us at technology. Why we the country of Microsoft and Apple and … wait, that’s later.

So the U.S. embarked on a noble undertaking, funded by the cold war fear of the Russians. It is a wonder, both technological and political that we did make it and the real heroes are all those people at NASA and the contractors that accomplished the impossible, the untested, the unbelievable, the incredible, moon landing.

Kennedy actually offered to partner with Russia, several times, and make the great race one of cooperation. However, the Soviets refused. The whole deadline and race idea was because we were pretty certain that Russia was about to land on the moon too. They had landed an unmanned probe, Luna 2, on January 4, 1959; so it wasn’t a baseless fear.

It was a wonder of technology and even the navigation was untried. After successfully circumnavigating the moon with Apollo 8, the U.S. had a couple more dress rehearsals before Apollo 11 did the landing. But testing the exact navigation and landing capability was done in real time on that Sunday.

What we didn’t realize was that there were serious gravitational variations on the moon’s surface that caused the LEM (Lunar Lander) to miss the planned landing space by a mile. Instead, the lander was coming down on a field of boulders, many larger than a car.

At that point a lot was going wrong. There were problems with communications causing the team to relay transmissions via Michael Collins in the lunar orbiter, adding seconds to key telemetry and instructions from ground control in Houston. The Sperry Rand computers which had magnetic core memory … that’s little tiny doughnuts made out of iron fillings with several wires threaded through the center, each one storing one bit of information: a zero or a one, was giving off an error code: “12 01” that indicated that data was arriving faster than the processor could handle it, so the software was resetting and staring over in its calculations.

If they had decided to abort, they would have to fire the assent engine, jettisoning the lower part of the lander with the descent engine … a procedure that had never been tested.

So, Neil Armstrong, experienced fighter pilot, grabbed the stick and started scooting across the lunar surface looking for a place to land safely. No one was even sure how much fuel he had left since the telemetry was interrupted. In Houston they started a countdown until empty. On the lander several warning lights came on and Buzz was counting down the minutes and then seconds of fuel remaining. Sixty seconds, forty-five seconds. Still the lander was scooting across the lunar sky at a horizontal velocity of 30 feet per second, not what you wanted when you touched down.

His nose and throat dry and cold from Eagle’s tanked air, Armstrong finally saw a clear spot and righted his ship into a vertical landing position. The flight surgeon noted that Armstrong’s heart rate was 156 and Aldrin’s was 125. The craft shuddered from its thrusters firing to maintain trajectory. The descent kicked up so much dust that, at thirty feet, the ground below was a roiling cloud.

GET 102:45:41 Kranz: “Carlton was just ready to say, ‘Fifteen seconds,’ and then we hear the crew saying, ‘Contact.’ We have a three-foot-long probe stick underneath each of the landing pads. When one of those touches the lunar surface, it turns on a blue light in the cockpit, and when it turns on the blue light, that’s lunar contact, their job is to shut the engine down, and they literally fall the last three feet to the surface of the moon. So you hear the ‘lunar contact,’ and then you hear, ‘ACA (Attitude Control Assembly) out of Detent (out of center position).’ “

Neil Armstrong: “I was absolutely dumbfounded when I shut the rocket engine off and the particles that were going out radially from the bottom of the engine fell all the way out over the horizon, they just raced out over the horizon and instantaneously disappeared, you know, just like it had been shut off for a week. That was remarkable. I’d never seen that. I’d never seen anything like that. And logic says, yes, that’s the way it out to be there, but I hadn’t thought about it and I was surprised."

Aldrin immediately turned off the engine’s power and keyed “413” into the computer, to store the ship’s location of 0.71 degrees North, 23.63 degrees East.

GET 102:45:58 (July 20, 1969, 3:17 PM CST): Armstrong: “Engine arm is off. (Pause) Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” In NASA history, filled with so many great moments, this was the greatest of them all.

That was 44 years ago today. At 4:17 PM, local time in Norfolk, Virginia, the race was over … with fifteen seconds of fuel left they had touchdown! After centuries of observing the cool circle over our planet, man was about to set foot on a celestial orb.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Welfare Island

Here amongst the eight million, rubbing shoulders and breathing down each other’s neck, yet there are places of isolation. Also, there are islands. Islands as lonely as Elba or Juan Fernandez where the original Robinson Crusoe spoke to his goats and felt his mind slipping quietly into the sea. And islands have always been prisons. St. Helena, Devil’s Island, Alcatraz, Chotodee. Islands have always been prisons.

This introduction from the 1963 episode of Naked City is a great example of the whole Film Noir genre. In the "Carrier" episode of Naked City (season 4, episode 29, 1963), a woman (Sandy Dennis) escapes from a chronic care hospital on Welfare Island — as it was then called — to carry a rare disease through the borough of Queens.

Welfare Island, New York City, New York. Renamed in 1971 to Roosevelt Island in honor of FDR, has an interesting history as a prison, an insane asylum, a charity hospital, and now tony development and a possible New York City Technology Center. The island was called Minnehanonck by the Lenape and Varkens Eylandt (Hog Island) by New Netherlanders, and during the colonial era and later as Blackwell's Island. It was known as Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973. It is is a narrow island in the East River of New York City.

Although Roosevelt Island is located directly under the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, it is not directly accessible from the bridge itself. A trolley used to connect passengers from Queens and Manhattan to a stop in the middle of the bridge, where passengers took an elevator down to the island. The trolley operated from the bridge's opening in 1909 until April 7, 1957. Between 1930 and 1955, the only vehicular access to the island was provided by an elevator system in the Elevator Storehouse that transported cars and commuters between the bridge and the island. The elevator was closed to the public after the construction of the Roosevelt Island Bridge between the island and Astoria in 1955 and demolished in 1970.

In 1976, the Roosevelt Island Tramway was constructed to provide access to Midtown Manhattan. New York City Subway access via the IND 63rd Street Line began in 1989. Located more than 100 feet below ground level, the Roosevelt Island station (F train) is one of the deepest in New York City's subway system.

On December 19, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that a joint Cornell University-Technion-Israel Institute of Technology graduate school of applied sciences will be built on the Island. The $2 billion facility will include 2 million square feet of space on an 11 acre city-owned site, which is currently used for a hospital. Classes will begin off-site in September 2012, with the first classes in the new facility scheduled to start in 2018. The campus will take almost 30 years to be fully complete.

Any visit to New York City won’t be complete without a trip to the island. Much of it is car free, but the red Island bus will get you around. Unlike in the past, you will be allowed to leave the island. It’s no longer a prison. Then there's Rikers.