Saturday, June 21, 2014

Atoms and Atomic Particles

I was just a boy when I first heard of atoms. I’m not sure how old I was. Older than 12 but probably younger than 14. I was sort of a science nerd … even back then. I was mostly interested in electronics at that point in my life. I had a subscription to Popular Electronics, and I was into things like ham radio and building various electronic gadgets.

I may have started with one of Isaac Asimov’s books on chemistry or atoms. I read a lot of Asimov in those days, both his science fiction and his nonfiction stuff, which was excellent and easy to understand.

So I knew about atoms and molecules and that atoms were made up of electrons that orbited around a nucleus and that the nucleus contained positive charged protons and neutral neutrons. I knew that electrons were the particles that made up electricity and that formed chemical bonds and that the nucleus was the place where fission occurred in atom bombs and nuclear power plants.

I knew that electrons were very light relative to the particles in the nucleus (called nucleons). In fact, the proton weighs (an imprecise term when atoms are concerned) about 1,000 times as much as an electron and a neutron weighs just a tiny bit more than a proton.

(Weight really is the result of the force of gravity on a property called “mass.” Weight would be different if gravity was different. For example, things weigh less on the moon. A metric unit for mass is the kilogram or one thousand grams, which has the abbreviation “kg.”)

There is another unit for mass, called an electron volt (eV), that scientists use when talking about small things like protons, neutrons, and electrons. An electron volt is actually a measurement of energy, but scientists can get away with using it to measure mass since mass and energy are related by Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2. So, in terms of MeV (Megaelectron volts, 1 MeV = 1,000,000 eV), the mass is shown in the following table.

Here are the details, just in case you’re into the numbers.

Mass of Atomic Particles

Particle Relative Mass Kilograms MeV
Neutron 1 1.6749286*10-27 939.56563
Proton 0.99862349 1.6726231*10-27 938.27231
Electron 0.00054386734 9.1093897*10-31 0.51099906

I never tried to memorize these numbers other than the fact that the neutron is over 1,000 times heavier than an electron. In fact, it is about 1,800 times as heavy. (Therefore, almost all of the mass of an atom is concentrated in the tiny nucleus and atoms are mostly empty space.)

You will notice, however, in using the convenient eV values that a proton and a neutron weigh in at almost exactly 1 GeV or Giga-Electron Volt. That’s a thousand million which some — at least in England — call a billion. (Here in the US we consider a billion to be a million million, at least for purposes of Federal budgets.)

(Giga is now familiar to most nonscientists because of the size of modern personal computer disk drives have grown from megabytes to gigabytes and even to terabytes.)

Getting back to my story, after studying the mass of the particles, I got an idea. It looked to me like a neutron might be a proton combined with an electron. After all, the plus and minus charges would cancel yielding the neutral charge of the neutron. So I did the math.

Proton = 0.99862349
Electron = 0.00054386734

So I added them:


Close, but not exactly 1.0. I assumed the missing mass was used up in energy holding them together. At least it didn't add up to more than the mass of the neutron, which I would not be able to explain.

(I didn’t really understand Relativity all that well before Junior High, but that wasn’t a bad guess about mass becoming energy. That's what makes atom bombs go BOOM! The mass of the fission products is slightly less than the original mass and that tiny amount of mass is converted to energy as heat and light — with a c-squared multiplier, and "c" is a very big number. So just a little bit of mass and you get a real big BOOM.)

In fact, at the end of the 19th century, when scientists were just discovering the makeup of the atom, it was supposed that the nucleus contained protons and electrons, with an overabundance of protons supplying the positive charge. Early on they didn’t know much about the nucleus other than the fact it attracted electrons and it was very dense.

Although they were unknown back in the fifties, we now know that protons and neutrons are make up of more elemental particles called “quarks.” Electrons, however, appear to be elemental particles and there’s nothing smaller “inside.” So my guess wasn’t all that crazy.

That is how science is advanced. Someone, maybe a small boy, has some crazy idea — called a “theory.” Then the experimentalists go to work to try to confirm or disprove the theory. My theory was actually disproved in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t know that when I was only 12. I started learning these more complex and detailed facts about atoms when I got to college. My simple view worked all through High School.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Hebgen Lake and the damaged and reinforced Hebgen Dam
It was Monday evening, August 17, 1959. I was 12 years old, ready to start Junior High in a few weeks. My parents owned a motel in Lewistown, Montana, and my brother and I had a wonderful large bedroom in the basement under the office. Even though it was not a school night, I was in bed and asleep. A 11:37 PM, I awoke to my bed shaking, and I was certain my brother had crawled across our bedroom and was shaking my bed to tease me. About the same time, my brother shouted out that I should stop shaking his bed. That’s when we realized it was an earthquake. We ran upstairs to my parent’s bedroom where my dad immediately accused us of shaking his bed.
Road washed out Hebgen Lake

There was none of the other signs of an earthquake. Nothing fell off the shelves, furniture didn’t tip over, and no sirens went off. Yet this was a 7.5 magnitude quake on the Richter Scale, and one of the most severe quakes ever recorded in the northern Rockies and the strongest in Montana recorded history. It was centered in the Madison River valley just northwest of the town of West Yellowstone and the west entrance to the great National Park.

Several hours later, around 3 or 4 AM, people started showing up at the motel looking for a room. They had been in lodging in and around Yellowstone Park, and the earthquake and aftershocks had them so worried that they drove several hundred miles north to get out of the region. I think they probably had driven until exhaustion before finding our little town and motel.

Dry Spillway Hebgen Dam

The earth shook, fell, and undulated across the greater Yellowstone area, into Wyoming and Idaho, and the effects were felt as far away as Seattle. The earthquake caused dramatic changes in and outside Yellowstone National Park. The quake caused new geysers to form, and from some hot springs muddy water flowed. One notable example was named Seismic Geyser, due to its origin. It started as a ground crack that formed during the quake that soon turned into a fumarole (steam vent) and over time, matured into a geyser.

An earthquake is the result of a sudden release of energy in the Earth's crust that creates seismic waves. Earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and sometimes displacement of the ground. Great plates in the Earth shift and move creating destructive vibrations as well as lifting and dropping large sections of land. These “tectonic” plates tend to move along preexisting breaks in the crust called “faults.”

My mom and my grandfather on damaged road

If you drive north out of West Yellowstone on state highway 191, a short ten miles out of West, you’ll come to an intersection and can turn west onto US 287. This highway takes you by the northern side of Hebgen Lake, a body of water formed by Hebgen Dam, which was built in 1914 at the entrance to the Madison Canyon. This was the center of the earthquake.

From there the Madison River, named by Lewis and Clark during their exploration of Montana, flows through the cannon and then north to near the town of Three Forks where it joins the Jefferson River and the Gallatin River to form the headwaters of the Missouri River. From there the Missouri flows north near Helena and through Great Falls where it turns east and flows out of Montana into North Dakota before turning south and eventually meeting the Mississippi in St. Louie.

Road along the lake showing high water mark from Quake Lake

The following Spring after the earthquake, my family drove down to reconnoiter the damage. The area was just recovering. Much of the road was temporary, gravel, and only one lane. We saw the devastation that comes when the Earth twists and shakes.

Now, some fifty-five years later, I recently revisited the site. The area around Hebgen Lake has been restored, and you can not tell anything happened except for some signs telling the tale. As you drive west, however, you soon encounter Quake Lake with its eerie submerged trees. Even after over 50 years, the land has barely healed. The side of the mountain where the slide came down is still naked and rough and giant boulders are strewn around in their final resting place after the '59 shaking. The slide itself looks like a great pile of gravel and earth and only now are small trees starting to take root.

Washed out and collapsed road

During the quake, the landscape surrounding the epicenter fell as much as 20 feet. Tsunami-like waves rose over Hebgen Lake lasting for twelve hours. And though the quake lasted less than a minute, with aftershocks continuing for some time, it took 28 lives and caused the equivalent of $75 million worth of damage in today’s dollars.


Hebgen Lake is used to store water from the drainage area at the headwaters of the Madison-Missouri river system. Hebgen Lake is about 15 miles long and on its southern end measures up to four miles at its widest point. A man-made lake retained by an earth-fill dam, Hebgen has been called the premier still-water fishing lake in Montana. The Hebgen Dam is a concrete-core earthen embankment dam 85 feet tall and 721 feet long.

Landslide from the distance

New fault scarps as high as 20 feet formed near Hebgen Lake. (A fault scarp is a step like area on the ground surface where one side of a fault has moved vertically with respect to another.) The major fault scarps formed along pre-existing normal faults northeast of Hebgen Lake.

Subsidence occurred over much of an area that was about 15 miles north-south and about twice as long east-west. As a result of the faulting near Hebgen Lake, the bedrock beneath the lake was permanently warped, causing the lake floor to tilt and generate a seiche. Maximum subsidence was 22 feet in Hebgen Lake Basin. About 80 square miles subsided more than 10 feet, and about 300 square miles subsided more than 1 foot. The earth-fill dam sustained significant cracks in its concrete core and spillway, but it continued to be an effective structure.


At Hebgen Lake itself considerable damage was caused by waves generated by the quake. These waves, known as seiche, differ from tsunami waves because in a seiche the entire water within a lake continues to slosh back and forth as the earthquake distorts the lake bed. Cabins along the lake shore were lifted off their foundations by the waves and were dumped when the waves receded. The dam itself, though damaged, held, although it was a point of great concern in the first hours after the quake.


Much greater damage and loss of life occurred near the west end of the Madison canyon where a great landslide dammed the Madison River creating Quake Lake, a body of water 6 miles long and 200 feet deep. The landslides caused by the quake carried 80 million tons (40 million cubic yards) of rock, mud and debris down into the valley and created hurricane force winds strong enough to toss cars. In Madison Canyon, a family of seven were swept away by the landslide, five of whom perished. Two more fatalities were also reported in nearby Cliff Lake to the south. In Rock Creek, tourists camping there were caught off guard by the quake and landslide, which swept them into the creek.

The landslide caused by the quake blocked the flow of the Madison River. The blockage caused the water to rise and formed a new lake, which was later to be named Quake Lake. Fearing that the pressure caused by the rising water would result in a catastrophic flood, the Army Corps of Engineers began to cut a 250 ft wide and 14 ft deep channel into the slide. By September 10, water began to flow through the channel. To prevent more erosion by the flowing water, the Army Corps cut another 50 ft channel which was completed on October 29.

Boulder that rolled across canyon photographed in 1960

Imagine yourself, camping outside Yellowstone Park, in 1959. Perhaps the park campgrounds were full, or you were camped near the lake for the excellent fishing, or perhaps you had started your journey home after a pleasant visit to the park.

Even though it was a Monday, the eight official campsites at Rock Creek Campground filled early the afternoon of August 17. By evening those who arrived had to settle for “unofficial” sites further up or downriver. Still, the mood was cheerful — it was a beautiful moonlit night.

Same boulder photographed in 2014

At 11:37 PM, the shaking began. Some thought it was marauding bears, but those that looked outside realized something bigger was going on. Trees swayed and cracked, rocks jumped into the air. Loose boulders began to bounce down from above. A few minutes later, came a hellish roar. For those camped closest to the canyon mouth, it was the last sound they ever heard as millions of tons of rocks and debris smashed across their campsites. Just upstream, the roar was accompanied by a hurricane-force wind and a wall of muddy water that swept away vehicles, tents, and people. Nineteen people were buried outright by the slide, their bodies never found. A total of twenty-eight people died as a result of the earthquake. More than two hundred others were eventually rescued. The campers had been savaged by three separate dramatic events: first, the largest earthquake in the Rocky Mountains; shortly after that, an 80-million-ton landslide; and then the rising water.

Landslide 2014

Imagine being trapped here in Madison River Canyon on the night of the earthquake. Dust chokes the air. Aftershocks rattle the ground, and you can hear the crash of boulders as they fall from cliffs above and smash through the forest. To make matters worse, there’s a dam upstream, and it could burst at any moment.

Landslide 2014

That’s the nightmare that faced the survivors of the earthquake. Seeking high ground, drawn by headlights and firelight, many of the refugees converged at what is now called “Refuge Point” — where they found help, comfort, and hope.

After the quake settled down, the dazed campers and others trapped in the canyon began to gather. By 1 am, the first groups had made their way to Refuge Point. They compared experiences: “The highway’s washed out above the dam” … “There’s a mountain of rocks blocking escape to the west” … “The Madison is flooding — I heard people screaming for help” … Carload after carload of frightened and injured people continued to arrive as a thunderstorm rolled above.

Hill side where slide originated 2014

This is the nightmare that faced some 250 women, men, and children in the aftermath of the earthquake. Drawn to the higher ground by headlights and firelight, many of the shaken refugees converged on a small ridge, offering one another companionship and a greater feeling of safety — while they waited for dawn to break and for news from the outside world.

Around noon on the day after the earthquake, a DC-2 carrying Forest Service smokejumpers flew in through the west end of Madison Canyon. People on the ground felt relief and gratitude as they watched the unfurling of orange and white parachutes. The smokejumpers brought rescue gear and hope. For the next several days the smokejumpers worked with the Highway Patrol and other Forest Service rescuers. After helping people evacuate at Refuge Point and the dam, some stayed on for search and rescue efforts at campsites down the canyon, where Earthquake Lake was on the rise.

Hillside 2014

The colossal landslide across Madison Canyon created a rock dam across the Madison River, blocking the river’s swift current. By dawn the next day, a brand-new lake, churning with muddy water and strewn with broken trees, and risen to engulf the campground near the slide.

Over the following weeks, the water rose nine feet per day as increased stream flow (probably triggered by the earthquake) poured down the Madison. Within three weeks the lake was five miles long and had reached a maximum of 190 feet deep. Only the brushy tops of the drowned trees remained to show where forest once covered the canyon floor.

The rapidly rising lake posed an increasing threat: would the water burst through the slide dam and flood the Madison Valley? Engineers constructed a spillway through the slide to relieve some of the pressure and control the flow.

Dead trees in Quake Lake 2014

Since the spillway construction in September 1959 the Madison River has gradually worn the channel across the slide deeper, and the lake level has dropped. The result? A “bathtub ring” of dead trees around the lake’s margin marks the former level of Earthquake Lake. The upper edge of this ring marks the lake’s highest point before the water began to drop. Eventually, as the spillway further erodes, the lake will “drain” and the river will resume its path.

Dead trees in Quake Lake 2014

With the silver-gray tree trunks rising from its waters like dry bones, Earthquake Lake is uncanny-looking. The eerie trees are clues to the lake’s strange and abrupt formation, which began on that night in 1959. In the early morning, when mist rises from the water, the skeletal trees that loom from Earthquake Lake appear ghostly. They’re just a hint of the strange world below, where scattered relics along the lake bottom tell a story of terror and loss: picnic tables, crushed cars, toys, fishing gear … all abandoned during a few tragic hours in August so long ago.

Sign showing original landslide magnitude and Quake Lake

Now, in the mixture of natural beauty, the blue of Hebgen Lake, the green of the surrounding hills, the many cabins and fishing huts that dot the shore are testament to a return to normalcy. It is good to enjoy the beautiful mountains, valleys, and rivers that run through them. But it is also good to remember the powerful forces that built these geological structures. Sometimes nature will display this power without a warning.

[A final hint. If you click on a picture, you will be treated by the Blogspot software to a full size view. Just click on the "x" to close the picture view and return to the blog.]

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Short (Very, Very Short) History of Apple

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs develop the original apple — just a circuit board. It was 1976, the start of the personal computer revolution. That success was followed the next year by the Apple II that established the company and was integral to the early success of personal computers.

By 1980, Apple was being run by the new CEO that Jobs was instrumental in hiring from Pepsi — John Sculley. After the poor acceptance of the Apple III, Jobs brought the technology from Xerox PARC to Cupertino and spawned the LISA. However, in corporate in-fighting, he was forced off that project and started his own team that led to the first Apple Mac in 1984.

Although it was successful, Jobs was forced out of the company the next year, largely due to a power struggle with Sculley, and went off and started a computer workstation company: NeXT, and bought a Hollywood computer animation company: Pixar.

In 1996, Steve Jobs was brought back to Apple, which was struggling with too many products and too many versions of the Mac. Apple had experimented with digital cameras and a touch tablet called Newton that was way ahead of its time.

Jobs quickly took charge, eliminated products such as the Newton, reduced the number of the models being sold, stopped selling the MacOS to clone manufacturers, and developed the colorful and transparent plastic cased iMac.

The rest is history: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. Each new product revolutionized the industry and started whole new product categories which are now highly competitive. To this day things are kept simple at Apple. Just a couple of models of desktop, laptop, tablets, etc., and new products typically announced once a year or even longer. From one button on the original mac mouse to one button on the iPhone and iPad, Jobs believed in keeping it simple. That led to such ease of use that Apple products typically required no user guide. (Besides, we know from working in product support, that no one reads the manual, so why bother shipping one.)

All this came to my mind as I read of the latest tablets announced by Samsung. Rather than the narrow, focused product catalog that Apple has maintained since Steve rejoined, Samsung goes for the shotgun approach. With a dozen different versions of tablet in their current lineup and new smartphones released ever month or two, it is a different way of marketing. Samsung says they let the market decide. Jobs always thought the market didn’t know what it wanted and so Apple would lead the market, rather than follow it. As Apple drops market share in phones and tablets to this Korean company, I still prefer the crystal clarity of Apple’s vision and await the next product category that Apple will establish.

What will it be? The iWatch? Home automation? Health devices? I can’t guess. We’ll just have to wait for the next chapter in the

H…h…history O…o…of A…a…apple.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Say Kids, What Time Is It?

I tease the generations that came after we boomers and call them “TV Babies.” It’s a term I got from Donald Fagen. It refers to the kids born after the early '60s that were raised by television. Sesame Street, Barney, the Cartoon Network, 24x7 and hundreds of channels. All those TV Babies grew up watching the television as it babysat them. We were different … in so, so many ways. Just ask a boomer. They’ll tell you just how special it was … and how special they are!

In my day television was not a 24 x 7 mind numbing box with hundreds of channels it has evolved into. In point of fact, I never watched this show as a kid. We didn’t have the typical television in my home town growing up that the rest of the nation enjoyed. I grew up in a little town that was over 100 miles from the nearest TV transmitter and this was before cable, dish, or Internet.

My grandfather had TV. He had a sixty foot tower in the backyard that he would crank up and aim the antenna at Great Falls. These super high towers were not unknown in my hometown, but they were few and far between. Based on the most stable of all geometries, the triangle, the towers were about one foot on a triangular-side and had a criss-cross lattice of support that looked enticingly like a ladder. Often I would fantasize about climbing to the top for the view. The tower was quite a piece of engineering and you would wind it up with a hand crank that doubled its height. Fuzzy black and white signals would then fill the “television tube” on my grandparent’s DuMont receiver.

Back then TV didn’t start until 4:00 PM. Before that you have this fascinating “test pattern” to tune your set to. Adjust the horizontal, the vertical, the contrast and brightness and prepare for evening TV. That was day-time television in my childhood. Starting in 1947, kids would gather around that test pattern waiting for NBC to come on the air with that special question.

But it started before that. Long before Sesame Street and Scooby Doo there was a local radio show in New York City on WNBC, the brainchild of one Bob Smith. It was called the “Triple B Ranch,” and the three B’s were “Big Brother Bob.” One day his writer suggested they add some comedy and asked Bob if he could do some voices. They tried out several and chose a sort of Mortimer Snerd voice (now you have to go back before the boomers to Edgar Bergen for that reference) and so they created this character called Elmer. This was radio, so all there was was a microphone and a script.

Bob would say something like, “Why there’s Elmer. Hi Elmer.” And, in a funny voice, he’d respond “huh, huh, huh, howdy doody bob, yuk, yuk.” After the show kids from the audience would come up and they were disappointed that they couldn’t see “Howdy Doody.”

So that gave Bob and the producer two ideas. First they changed the character name from “Elmer” to “Howdy Doody” since that was a funnier name. And second, they thought if they could make a puppet of Howdy, maybe NBC would be interested in a television show.

The big eared puppet they created had 48 freckles for each of the states at that time. (Yea, you TV Babies only know 50 states. But the boomers were around when there were only 48.) And thus was born, on December 27, 1947, the “Howdy Doody Show” with Buffalo Bob and a cast of zany characters and puppets. (Image that, the Muppets weren’t the first.) There was Clarabell the Clown, Chief Thunderthud — cowabunga, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, the Mayor, the Flub-A-Dub — loved spaghetti and meat balls, Inspector John J. Fadoozle, and many more.

The original actor that played Clarabell, the mute clown that only honked his horn, was Bob Keeshan, who continued in that role until 1952. Keeshan was fired after a salary dispute and later became Captain Kangaroo at CBS. At the end of the final episode, telecast on September 24, 1960, Clarabell (then played by jazz musician Lew Anderson) broke his series-long silence to say the final words of the final broadcast: "Goodbye, kids."

Those were the days of black and white TV and stay-at-home moms. It was the cocoon that I metamorphosed in … me and about 76 million other boomers. And now we’re all knocking on the door of social security. Now we’ve got color TV, HD TV, 3D TV, not to mention video games and the internet. Ah, it was truly a simpler time back then. Telephones went “ring” instead of playing "ringtones" and they weren’t in your pocket. There were no school shootings and about the worst thing that happened was when you skinned your knee in a bicycle accident. It was the best time to grow up.

I don’t think I was ever in that happy crowd gathered around the test pattern at 4:00 PM (or on Saturday morning at 10:00 AM — but who knows what time that would have been in Montana), but I do belong to that generation. We didn’t get TV at home until around 1960 and the most memorable show from watching at my grandparents was The Andy Griffith Show. But I know my bride was a fan. Back in Massachusetts, she and her friends would expectantly wait for the test pattern to change and for the announcer to ask that proverbial question, “Say Kids, What Time Is It?” As a television audience in the millions shouted out the answer, the theme music would start: “It’s Howdy Doody Time, It’s Howdy Doody Time.” She even named her dog Cowabunga.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


In my thirty plus years of teaching, I used a lot of analogies to explain different ideas and concepts. By using an analogy, I hoped to explain a new and unknown idea in terms of things the students already knew. Like most teachers, I taught certain classes over and over (and over and over) again. That let me fine tune my presentations and analogies and focus on those that worked best.

For several years while I was in IBM Technical Education I taught courses on software testing. That didn’t stop when I moved on to a later stage in my career and I found myself in the front of a classroom or a TV camera teaching principles of testing right up until I retired.

An important concept in testing is the various levels. These are times or stages during the development process where testing occurs. (Of course you start the testing process at the beginning of the development cycle if you want to be most effective. But you can’t run (or execute) test cases until you have code to test.)

The very first phase of testing is most often called “Unit Testing” (or "Component Testing") and it is done to individual units or modules and most often executed by the original developer or "author." There are several phases following Unit Test with different names from "Function Test" to "Integration Test" and others. These tests are performed as the software parts are integrated to make the complete system.

This is most often followed by "System Test" as well as "Beta Test," "Acceptance Test" and other tests of the complete software running in a full operational environment. These levels of testing are most often performed by individuals with the "tester" job code and not by the code developers.

Each phase of testing has a certain purpose and motivation. These are discrete steps or phases, yet the overall purpose remained the same: to find bugs. So how to explain the concept of phases of testing … what was the same and what was different?

I used the rainbow as an analogy. First I’d ask how many colors in the rainbow? There are really two correct answers. Some will say “seven.”

Yes, there are seven: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. Sure, you can look at a rainbow and observe and name each color, but INDIGO?!? Where did that come from?

Simple, the ancients — who first recorded these colors — were superstitious and numerologists. They considered seven as a number representing completeness. (See the days of the week or the Bible’s Genesis account.) They added Indigo to the other common colors to reach the "magic" number seven. So, are there really seven?

Well no. Color is related to the frequency of light, and the rainbow shows all frequencies in the visible band from deepest red to the highest blue (which we call purple). So a more scientific answer is that the colors of the rainbow are a continuum of colors from infra-red to ultra-violet.

And that is true of testing too. It is a bit of continuous transition that we break into nameable parts or phases from Unit Test to System Test and many other names for specific purposed tests.

One of the best ways to explain the engineering concepts is through a model — another form of analogy. This diagram shows the connection between the software development phases or stages and the test phases. This picture shows the connection through planning, but there is also a connection between the phases via inspections. Unit Testers should inspect or review units of code and system testers should be involved in requirements design reviews.

Also the developers should be there at test plan and test design inspections. This process is an important part of an overall quality effort.

The V-diagram is applicable in all process models from waterfall to iterative and spiral to Agile. No matter what the development plan is, you have to have requirements and designs before you have code and integration, and you need code before you can run a test case. All development models include the same basic steps.

Depending on your organization, your education, and the type of industry you work in, these names may be different, but the concept is the same. It is the concepts that need to be focused on, not the terms.

So there you have a couple of analogies to assist you in understanding these fundamental process steps. If you aren’t a programmer or tester, then you may not know what I’m talking about. But, if you are a software developer, then these models, pictures, and analogies might help your understanding. It worked for a lot of students in my classes.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Visit to the Worlds Fair of 2014

In 1964 there was a World’s Fair in New York City. More correctly these events were named “Expositions.” Starting in London in 1851, these world-wide displays were very common and held in the U.S., Europe, and even Australia. The theme was often the future … new technology and new ways of living … the world of tomorrow. These great expositions pre-dated Disneyland, yet they had many of the Disney touches as he, too, was interested in the future of technology and mankind.

The most recent were held in China in 2010 and South Korea in 2012. Planned for the next few years are fairs in Italy, Kazakhstan, and United Arab Emirates. The best-known “first World Expo” was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom, in 1851, under the title "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” The Eiffel Tower was built for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris. The Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York, in 1901 was a showcase for Edison and his new electric light powered by the nearby dam at Niagara Falls.

It was at this exposition that President William McKinley was shot by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, at the Temple of Music. Although one of the exhibits was the new X-Ray machine, the doctors didn’t use it to treat the president because they were concerned about “side effects.” The president died eight days later from gangrene caused by the bullet wounds.

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair diverged from the original focus of the world's fair expositions. From then on, world's fairs adopted specific cultural themes; they forecasted a better future for society. Technological innovations were no longer the primary exhibits at fairs. The theme of the 1939 fair was "Building the World of Tomorrow"; at the 1964 New York World's Fair, it was "Peace Through Understanding"; at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, it was "Man and His World". The fairs encouraged effective intercultural communication for the exchange of innovation.

While visiting the 1964 World’s Fair, the “good doctor,” Isaac Asimov, wrote an article for the New York Times in which he described attending the 2014 World’s Fair. Now Science Fiction is often thought of as predicting the future. After all, Jules Verne envisioned rockets to the moon and submarines as long ago as the middle of the nineteenth century … just in time for the first World’s Fair.

In point of fact, most sci-fi writers don’t consciously make predictions. They are not concerned if their vision of the future turns out to be correct. Rather they will take an idea from the present and project it into the future. A method often called “what if?” What if mankind reaches the moon and beyond? What if ships could voyage under the sea, or we could visit the center of the earth, or what would life be like with robots or teleportation?

Often science fiction tells the positive side of technology and man. One of the most endearing traits of the Star Trek series was the positive view of mankind and human behavior. Expositions were meant more to celebrate today’s technology than to predict the future. And what a glorious future it will be as all this new technology is implemented.

Yet, no honest science fiction writer will pass up the chance to describe their vision of the future. That’s what Isaac Asimov did in his article. Of course, making predictions is difficult, especially about the future. A lot of unexpected discoveries as well as unanticipated problems can occur between 1964 and 2016. Why I’ve spent my entire adult life dealing with just those discoveries and problems. Welcome to the future. So what did Isaac get right? Turns out, not much.

To begin with, there is no 2014 World’s Fair … not in New York, nor anywhere else. However, he did get a few right:

  1. ”Robots will be neither common nor very good in 2014.”
  2. ”By 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars.”
  3. ”As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set.”
  4. ”On Earth — laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interferenece.”

Still, that’s a pretty good batting average for seeing 50 years into the future, especially with the current rate of discovery and implementation. He said that:

One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.

Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.

While that technology does exist, or very nearly exist in our modern world, this is not common … yet. Plus, I don’t really think mankind, at least in the U.S. and certain developed counties, has withdrawn from nature. Homes in the U.S. are bigger and more comfortable with air conditioning and Internet access and cable TV. Still, I think camping, and parks, and picnics, and family vacations in the mountains has increased with the advent of Interstate highways, more reliable automobiles, and fancy recreational vehicles. Oh, wait, maybe we have withdrawn when you talk about giant motorhomes with color TV, refrigerators, and A/C.

He further stated, “The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotype batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.”

Got the batteries right. It is becoming a cordless world. Just check out the tool section at Home Depot. But, we haven’t figured out good “atomic” batteries, and struggle with odd chemical constructions using weird metals like NiCad and other unknown to common man materials. He did understand the issue of disposal of radioactive materials, but the “authorized agents of the manufacturer” have not materialized. Even the federal government is struggling with radioactive material disposal.

He predicted fusion power. Oh, if only he’d been right on that one. We could do without Fukushima. He predicted vehicles riding on compressed air and not touching the roadways as well as moving sidewalks and other conveyances of this type. Again, we have that technology, but rarely see it implemented except on television shows or in airports.

Did he predict cell phones? The Internet? What about men on the moon? Well, close:

Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the '64 General Motors exhibit).

For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.

Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.

Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.

Hmmmm, we’ve sort of got this, although no-one is calling Antarctica, or are they?

He did get the population explosion:

As I stood in line waiting to get into the General Electric exhibit at the 1964 fair, I found myself staring at Equitable Life's grim sign blinking out the population of the United States, with the number (over 191,000,000) increasing by 1 every 11 seconds. During the interval which I spent inside the G.E. pavilion, the American population had increased by nearly 300 and the world's population by 6,000.

In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.

Population pressure will force increasing penetration of desert and polar areas. Most surprising and, in some ways, heartening, 2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral. General Motors shows, in its 1964 exhibit, the model of an underwater hotel of what might be called mouth-watering luxury. The 2014 World's Fair will have exhibits showing cities in the deep sea with bathyscaphe liners carrying men and supplies across and into the abyss.

Living under the ocean, often predicted, hasn’t happened yet.

With this next one, he came pretty close, and — if Monsanto has anything to say about it — it is probably still just around the corner.

Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be "farms" turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which "mock-turkey" and "pseudosteak" will be served. It won't be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.

He spoke a lot about population and even population control. He predicted by now Boston and New York City would have grown together as one giant metropolis. “Well, the earth's population is now about 3,000,000,000 and is doubling every 40 years. If this rate of doubling goes unchecked, then a World-Manhattan is coming in just 500 years. All earth will be a single choked Manhattan by A.D. 2450 and society will collapse long before that!” He may yet be proven right with this prediction.

He even predicted the current economic downfall and loss of jobs. Although most blame our current predicament on the housing bubble, banks, and shipping jobs overseas, a big part of today’s unemployment picture is due to automation. He said:

The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction. Part of the General Electric exhibit today consists of a school of the future in which such present realities as closed-circuit TV and programmed tapes aid the teaching process. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary "Fortran" (from "formula translation”).

Remember, one of the largest exhibits at the ’64 Fair was IBM’s hall of computers.

He concludes with a dire statement. It is no surprise that such an energetic and busy man as Asimov would feel this way. Yet I wonder if today’s population would agree with this final comment:

“Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!”

"Enforced leisure," now that's a concept. Welcome to 2014. Now we just call it "unemployment." (And that includes yours truly. That's how I find all the time to write these things.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


This is a story about a story. It is a special story; very special to me. It was written by my favorite author, the “good doctor,” Isaac Asimov. It is rather special to others too. Written in 1941, it was adapted into a novel by Asimov in collaboration with Robert Silverberg in 1990. The short story has been included in 48 anthologies, and has appeared in six collections of Asimov's tales. In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted Nightfall the best science fiction short story written prior to the 1965 establishment of the Nebula Awards, and included it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964.

Asimov is one of my three “all time favorite” authors along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. [Note to readers: I’m not the only one that lumps these three together. They are often considered the “big three” by science fiction authors, fans, and biographers and historians of sci-fi.] These three, and particularly Asimov, came to prominence under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. in his Astounding Science Fiction magazine. All three were real scientists and engineers (like many science fiction authors), and described significant and practical inventions in their work. (While Asimov is famous for his analysis of robots, Clarke invented geosynchronous satellites, and Heinlein created "waldoes.")

Asimov completed his MA in chemistry in 1941 and earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1948. After completing his doctorate, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine, with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958, this was in a non-teaching capacity, as he turned to writing full-time. Being tenured, he retained the title of associate professor, and in 1979, the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry.

My early science education included much from his nonfiction. The Measure of the Universe, The Search For The Elements, The Noble Gases, The Neutrino: Ghost Particle of the Atom, Understanding Physics, Vol. 1-3, Light, Asimov on Numbers, Realm of Algebra, … and many more … all still in my library. He even wrote seven books on the Bible and a detailed study of Shakespeare, also in my collection. There are 506 books accredited to him, and I think they may have missed a few in the count. Certainly a prolific author. All that and great science fiction too.

Nightfall came about when Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after discussing with him a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!

Campbell's opinion to the contrary was: "I think men would go mad.”

In Asimov’s tale, there is a planet called Lagash which is located in a stellar system containing six suns (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta are the only ones named in the short story), which keep the whole planet continuously illuminated; total darkness is unknown, and as a result so are all the stars outside the planet's stellar system.

At the point of the story, there is only one “sun” in the sky, since the other five are on the opposite side of the planet. Unknown to most of the population, a solar eclipse is about to occur which will block out this single source of light. (As the planet rotates, the entire surface will be in the dark.) This is a rare occurrence that only occurs once every 2049 years. Because it is never night, the people have not experienced total darkness. In fact, there are some experiences that suggest total darkness will cause madness.

There is a religious cult that speaks of “stars,” the unknown objects that are never seen in the always lit sky. They expect an apocalypse accompanied by the stars taking away the “believers.” The astronomers have worked out the mechanics and are predicting the eclipse. The archeologists have found evidence of several prior civilizations that all end in fire and ash every 2000 years. All these facts are gathered by a reporter as he interviews the different protagonists during the last day before nightfall.

One of the scientists explains the expectation that, in the darkness, men will go mad and burn everything seeking light. They have several hundred colleagues hidden in a special place intended to survive the catastrophe. Meanwhile the remaining astronomers intend to create a photographic record to “restart” civilization after the nightfall. The cult leader shows up to smash the cameras as “blasphony,” and must be subdued. As the eclipse starts to darken the ski, of course, the “angry villagers,” egged on by members of the religious cult and approaching darkness, are at the observatories gates tearing down the door.

Then it happens. The total eclipse. The stars come out. With the arrival of the night and a crimson glow that was "not the glow of a sun,” (for the city has been set fire) with the implication that societal collapse has occurred once again.

Just what science fiction does best. It answers the question “What if?” Next I’ll tell you about Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star. Oh, I see we’re out of time. Well, next time then.

Burn down the mission
Burn it down to stay alive

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Internet of Things

After watching the complete Apple WWDC (World Wide Developer Conference) presentations yesterday, I’m excited about the prospects for the notion called the “Internet of Things.” This is the “electronic home.”

It’s like those ads you see on TV where the guy remotely shuts off the television, turns out the lights, and locks the door that his son had carelessly left on or unlocked. I have a limited version at my home now. I can check and adjust my furnace and A/C from anywhere in the world using an app on my iPhone. If the system should experience a failure or malfunction, it will send me an email to alert me. I also have some Philips "Hue" LED lights that connect through my router, and I can control them via iPhone too.

In Apple’s announcements yesterday they included the new iOS 8 SDK (Software Development Kit — a set of software development tools). This is stunning. This version opens up more than 4,000 APIs for third-party developers. In parallel, Apple rolled out new frameworks called "HealthKit" and "HomeKit." The HealthKit APIs, according to Apple, provide the ability for health and fitness apps to communicate with each other. The HomeKit "delivers a common protocol, secure pairing and the ability to easily control individual or groups of devices throughout the house including integration with Siri," said the company.

An “API” is an application program interface. These are connections into the operating system services for use by application programs or “apps.” An API can be used to read or write data or request services written into the OS. These new APIs are largely interfaces to specific services and functions that would be useful for home automation and health devices. This includes wireless communications, alerts and messages, as well as display functions and security features. Having common OS functions and services available reduces the amount of effort required by application programmers and assures consistency and security as well as robust operations to be implemented simply and with minimum code.

The common thread here is Apple's aggressive software strategy, designed to court a million more developers, while signing up system and IC (integrated circuits or “chips”) vendors to design solutions "made for iOS devices.” Apple's action of opening up so many new APIs at once unprecedented. No other operating system companies, including Google or Microsoft, have ever done it. When Microsoft first released its .NET framework for Windows in 2002 with version 1.0, it wasn’t until version 4.0, ten years later, that a complete framework API set was available.

Development of .NET actually began in 1990 with the so called “Next Generation Windows Services,” so the process was very drawn out and evolutionary.

Apple intends these frameworks to be more revolutionary.

As Apple guns for a big stake in technology for monitoring health and home, chip companies including Marvell, Broadcom, and Texas Instruments are looking to piggyback on the Apple campaign. The three IC vendors were listed on a slide shown on the stage at Apple's World Wide Developers Conference, as the companies supporting Apple's HomeKit. Of the three, Marvell became the first to launch a host of new Internet of Things System on a Chip (SoCs) made for Apple’s iOS devices. These are the “brains” of the appliances that will connect to the iPhone for control, programming, and monitoring. Your new toaster may have more computer power than the lunar landing craft did in 1969 thanks to built-in SoCs.

Marvell is rolling out three separate versions of its Internet of Things SoCs — for WiFi, Bluetooth, and ZigBee — by tightly coupling a Muli-point Control Unit with each wireless chip, together with power management and memory on a single die. Marvell’s solutions come with what the company calls "EZ-connect" software enabling end systems to implement various HomeKit-specific protocols. These chips could be included in everything from your refrigerator to your furnace and home lights. The clincher: Marvell’s Internet of Things SoCs are already MFi (Made For iPhone/iPad) certified, a process controlled by Apple.

Of course, suppliers of Internet of Things devices — lightbulbs, thermostats, door locks, sprinklers, home appliances, and healthcare devices — will still need to go through Apple's MFi certification process on a system level. But with Marvell having done its MFi homework, system vendors are expected to find it a snap to get the MFi seal of approval from Apple and connect their finished products with iOS devices. Having Apple’s certificate of approval will assure customers of quality, compatibility, and even security.

For those not familiar, ZigBee is a specification for a suite of high level communication protocols used to create personal area networks built from small, low-power digital radios. ZigBee is based on an IEEE 802.15 standard. Though low-powered, ZigBee devices can transmit data over long distances by passing data through intermediate devices to reach more distant ones, creating a mesh network; that is, a network with no centralized control or high-power transmitter / receiver able to reach all of the networked devices. ZigBee is intended for networks with low data rate communications and is perfect for home automation. The name refers to the waggle dance of honey bees after their return to the beehive. Home entertainment system control, smoke detectors, and burglar alarm sensors are common applications.

Armed with hundreds of millions of iTune accounts already held by consumers who trust Apple with their account payment information, Apple hopes to milk that bond assuming consumers will trust Apple to accurately identify that the thermostat and doorbell are indeed theirs and theirs alone. Security is paramount in the way Apple is deploying the HomeKit. It is also my greatest personal concern for the home automation allows the opportunity for the bad guys to “hack your home.”

Since some Internet of Things devices are too small to incorporate an LED or a display, Apple's iPhone comes in handy as the indispensable screen to set up Internet of Things devices and automatically connect them to the home network. But the raison d'être of Apple's HomeKit isn't just about turning an iPhone or iPad into the smart home's all-purpose remote control.

Apple's HomeKit framework helps users create and set up a specific "scene," according to Apple. For example, users can turn the home network into a "night mode" so that lighting throughout the home can be turned off and locks turned on. When a "vacation mode" kicks in, lighting could get randomly turned on and off, a sprinkler is switched on at a scheduled time, and the motion sensor system is triggered.

By promoting a common protocol for home automation devices and making a public API available for configuring and communicating with those devices, Apple is making the home network easy for both users and system vendors.

Without the HomeKit framework, the application that users would need to control their appliances, for example, must be independently created by an individual system vendor. And it would be too time consuming for consumers to create a specific use-case that must be applied to individual devices.

The MFi scheme would place no limits to the type of wireless connectivity necessary for each Internet of Things device. If it's a door lock, it probably makes sense to use Bluetooth Smart, because of its proximity use-case scenario. For a washing machine — or any other appliance plugged into a wall socket — adding WiFi enables each machine to communicate with cloud services through the home network, sending an alert if it breaks down. If light bulbs are set up as part of the network, ZigBee would be the choice of wireless technology.

Currently, iPhones aren't equipped with ZigBee. However, ZigBee is just a wireless protocol. Many radios can be software configured for the data rate of ZigBee for MFi-based networks. My Philips LED lights use a control box on the network that talks to the lights, and receives input from the iPhone over my WiFi network. We are not talking continuous audio, we are talking the 'washing machine-is-done' level bursts, or 'lower-thermostat-and-verify-command' receipt. MFi could also support novel communication protocols, wired and wireless — possibly also light and laser modulation and receiving. You just need a WiFi bridge.

This is the dawn of a new age. Remember the first time you saw VisiCalc? The first time you used email? Your first cell phone? This is the dawning of a new age. It is coming. It may be the next big thing. I can hardly wait. Then again, with the very real security concerns of twenty-first century living, maybe we should be careful before we go back to the future.

We are living in the future I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry and standing in soup lines
We are standing in soup lines, we are standing in soup lines

Monday, June 2, 2014

Shifting Gears

The title of this essay is “Shifting Gears.” It is not a metaphor for making life changes, nor is it an allegory about going in new directions. No, it’s about shifting gears; driving a stick; using a clutch; a manual transmission; gear jammin’.

I’ve always had a natural ability with machinery. I didn’t need a “lefty-loosey” or “righty-tighty” to get along with tools and machines. I’ve got an innate ability and a natural predilection with machinery. Oh, I can have a tough time starting a lawn mower like anyone else, but mostly machinery works well in my hands. And none better than a good old stick shift.

My first driving experience was with my dad’s ’52 Chevy Sedan Delivery, or — using the more common description — “panel truck.” Like most cars and small trucks of the ‘50s, it was a simple machine. You started it with a button on the dashboard. It did have an automatic choke, but that’s a story for another time. It had no radio. The only controls were a knob for the lights and another for the wipers. A simple heater completed the dashboard. We never used the key. In those days an ignition switch had three settings: on, off, and lock. There was a lip around the key slot, so you could turn the switch without the use of a key. We never used the key; just switching from off to on and back to off as needed. (Without the key, you couldn’t put it in “lock.”) Never locked the doors either. It was a small town. This way you never had to ask “who has the key?”

It had the common three-speed shifter on the steering column. You’d pull it toward you and down for first gear, up and forward for second, and down for third. For reverse you’d pull the shifter back toward yourself and up. It was the familiar “H” pattern of all shifters, but most modern gear jammers are used to floor shifters. Back then most levers were on the column. (If you go way, way back, the shifters were on the floor to keep the mechanism simple. Column shifters were considered very modern in the fifties.)

The mechanism was spring loaded to the forward position: second and third. You had to pull back slightly as you cleared the center of the “H” to get the low gear and reverse. It was a natural motion that the body performed more like using a hand to catch a ball or a foot to kick your brother. As you pushed the lever up from first, it would pop down into the back part of the H and continue on up on its path to second gear. It was more automatic muscle memory than thoughtful process. The center of the H was the neutral position. No gears engaged. If you put the truck in neutral, let out the clutch, and stepped on the gas, the motor would rev and race. But that had a purpose. Read on.

In those days second and third had “synchromesh” gears. These are small parts in the transmission that speed up (or slowed down) the gears during shifting to assure they meshed without any grinding. That allowed you to shift to second and between second and third while moving. First gear, however, didn’t have any synchromesh. The designers intention was for you to only shift into low when stopped … same for reverse.

Here’s a more technical explanation via my friends at Wikipedia:

Among many different types of clutches, a dog clutch provides non-slip coupling of two rotating members. It is not at all suited to intentional slipping, in contrast with the foot-operated friction clutch of a manual-transmission car.

The gear selector does not engage or disengage the actual gear teeth which are permanently meshed. Rather, the action of the gear selector is to lock one of the freely spinning gears to the shaft that runs through its hub. The shaft then spins together with that gear. The output shaft's speed relative to the countershaft is determined by the ratio of the two gears: the one permanently attached to the countershaft, and that gear's mate which is now locked to the output shaft.

Locking the output shaft with a gear is achieved by means of a dog clutch selector. The dog clutch is a sliding selector mechanism which is splined to the output shaft, meaning that its hub has teeth that fit into slots (splines) on the shaft, forcing that shaft to rotate with it. However, the splines allow the selector to move back and forth on the shaft, which happens when it is pushed by a selector fork that is linked to the gear lever.

The fork does not rotate, so it is attached to a collar bearing on the selector. The selector is typically symmetric: it slides between two gears and has a synchromesh and teeth on each side in order to lock either gear to the shaft.

In this way two different gears can be selected. Since most automobile transmissions have more than two gears or "speeds" there are more than one selector fork. In the old-fashioned, three-speed transmissions, second and third are on one spine and shifted back and forth, typically with the aid of synchomesh, while first and reverse are on another shaft that usually lacked synchro. The shift mechanism selects between the two shift forks. One is selected when you pull back on the shifter (first and reverse) and the second when the shifter is forward (third and fourth). A locking system assures that, if one selector fork is choosing a gear, the other selector fork is held in the central position or "neutral." With the advent of four forward speeds and more, additional shift forks are usually added.

If the so-called dog teeth make contact with the gear, but the two parts are spinning at different speeds, the teeth will fail to engage and a loud grinding sound will be heard as they clatter together.

For this reason, a modern dog clutch in an automobile has a synchronizer mechanism or synchromesh, which consists of a cone clutch and blocking ring. Before the teeth can engage, the cone clutch engages first, which brings the selector and gear to the same speed using friction.

Until synchronization occurs, the teeth are prevented from making contact, because further motion of the selector is prevented by a blocker (or baulk) ring. When synchronization occurs, friction on the blocker ring is relieved and it twists slightly, bringing into alignment certain grooves or notches that allow further passage of the selector which brings the teeth together.

The exact design of the synchronizer varies among manufacturers and with the total number of gears or "speeds."

There, you are now well on your way to a degree in mechanical engineering. Next time I’ll explain planetary gears … now, back to my kid’s tale.

In those days, woe to anyone that tried to pull the shifter down into low while still moving. There were no “dog clutch” or “blocker cones” for low, and this motion would be accompanied by a terrible mechanical noise called “grinding the gears.” Anyone within earshot would shout out derisive comments on your mechanical ability such as “grind me a pound,” a reference to the preparation of hamburger in the butcher shop; or, my favorite, “they’re gonna make ‘em out of rubber next year.”

However, a true gear jockey, a title of which I was eminently entitled, could “double clutch” into low while still moving. The process was complicated and consisted of putting the shifter into neutral, releasing the clutch momentarily while revving the engine, and then push in the clutch and pull into first without any mechanical noise. What such an expert was accomplishing when releasing the clutch in neutral was to spin the gears up to exactly the speed matching the moving back wheels so that the gears would mesh without the benefit of synchro gears. Us “gear jammers” were practiced at such maneuvers and we were as proud of that ability as Liberace on the pie-an-oh was in his art.

I don’t recall when I learned this skill of “double clutching,” but I could do it for as long as I can remember, probably since I was a baby! It was a natural thing more made of muscle memory and reflexes than head knowledge, and I would often demonstrate this skill to the amazement and felicitations of my friends. And if you believe that my friends would congratulate me when I did a perfect double clutch, then you don’t know my friends very well and I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

Although column shifters were the typical stock item, the long levers and mechanisms made fast shifting a bit of a clumsy act. Real racers wanted to fly from first to second to third with hardly a hesitation or loss of power to the wheels. Back then the greatest automobile modification you could make was to move the shifter from the steering column to the floor. That made the connection from lever to transmission as short as possible and allowed fast, smooth, and decisive shifting that was called for any time maximum acceleration was required.

This modification was called “four-on-the-floor,” although you usually included reverse in that count. Soon Detroit was making these shifters standard equipment in the muscle cars of the period. The best shifter of all time was made by Hurst. Some had a handle called a “tee” and it was the goal of any red blooded American boy to have a big V-8 and a Hurst shifter. Hurst is still around providing maximum shift to Mustangs, Cameros, GTOs, and even included in some hot dealer models as standard equipment.

Now days, with automatic transmissions in most cars, you only find a “stick” in either a very low cost model or in a performance automobile, however even the cheap one’s typically have four forward speeds. The shifters are now all on the floor and the meager three-speed has been replaced by an honest four-on-the-floor at a minimum, and many modern autos have five-speed trannies. My Miata has six. I have to admit that some times I forget just what gear I’m in. I long for some light on the dash to remind me I’m in fifth, not third, or sixth rather than fourth. You see, the familiar “H” is still there, but now it has extra arms. Sort of “|-|-|.”

Now first is in the upper left; down for second; up for third and down for fourth. Fifth is a push to the right and up and sixth, if you got it, is down with the same push. In all these modern cars, reverse has a special location. It may be way to the right and down, or even to the left and up. There’s a strong spring you have to overcome to get into reverse, and some have a lever you pull to unlock the backward gear. On my Miata it is a hard push to the right and down, and sometimes that doesn’t work. It helps to put the shifter in neutral and double clutch before shifting into reverse. So old habits not only die hard, but are actually quite useful still.

You see, all modern manual transmissions have synchro even on low gear, so double-clutching has become something of a lost art; sort of like putting the harness on a team of horses. Some still have the skill, but most modern men and women have lost that ability just as they’ve lost the knowledge to hunt dinosaurs with a spear.

Some people today can’t drive a stick, even with full synchro-mesh. It typically isn’t the gear pattern that’s the problem, it’s using the clutch. Especially for starting out. That’s the problem. Oh, most learn quickly, but I know a few that it just doesn’t ever come natural.

I took drivers ed. in High School. We drove a little Corvair with a manual transmission. We were taught to stop on a hill and then start out moving without any rolling backward. That was a challenge. There you were with one foot on the clutch and one on the brake, and — except for the rare circus oddity: the three legged man — most people could not run the throttle while pressing the brake and clutch pedals. I suppose “heel and toe” techniques could be applied, but we learned simpler methods. In one you would let the clutch out just enough to apply some friction and holding power from the idling engine. Then you’d quickly move the right foot from brake to gas, pressing down to rev the engine as you released the clutch further for a smooth start and no “roll-back.”

That was a tricky maneuver, but I was expert at it, and still use it on the steep hill to third avenue in Longmont. The second method requires a hand brake (sometimes called an emergency brake or a parking brake) and won’t work on those foot pedal parking brakes since the situation has already used up both feet for clutch and regular brake. If you have a hand brake you pull it out and hold the car steady so you can release the foot brake and, using gas and clutch in the regular way, as the hand brake is slowing released, up the hill you go with zero roll-back.

My dad says his old 40-something Studebaker had a "hill holder" feature that prevented backward roll. It was a great car for Seattle's steep hills. Those old cars had some neat features that are unknown by today's drivers. By the way, my dad loved Studebaker.

(Hand brakes are also useful for flipping some great “brodies” on snow covered roads when you lock up the rear wheels. That’s another skill I used to practice as a kid and admit I still use in my cul-de-sac at home. You can take the kid out of Montana, but you can’t take the Montana out of the kid — I always say.)

My old Navy buddy, Woody, had a Javelin back in the sixties made by American Motors or AMC. It was AMC's answer to the Mustang, a nice sporty two-door, but it only had a three-speed and a column shifter. The engineers had added synchro to first, so they would advertise it as a “three-and-one-half” speed.

Now those TV Babies (a term I borrowed from Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame for anyone born after 1962) out there that never drove a car from the fifties or early sixties, don’t worry, you didn’t have to know how to double-clutch. Cars in those days had a lot of torque, which is low speed power, and you could do a lot in second gear. You really only needed first for starting from a dead stop. Actually, I could get the car going from a dead stop in second gear, but it required you ride the clutch a bit, letting it slip to keep up the rpm’s and that wasn’t good on clutches. Sort of a “these are professional drivers, don’t try this at home” procedure.

I did teach both my boys and my granddaughter to drive stick. (Linda already knew … as she’s from my generation … “I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-generation.”) As most realize when they first try, the hardest part of using the clutch is starting out without killing the engine or revving to the red line or starting with a jerking motion like some jack-in-the-box bobbing on the end of its spring. My secret is to find an empty parking lot and have the learner only use the clutch and no gas. Without worry of synchronizing the engine rpm and the clutch it is much easier to learn how to hesitate at that fine point where the clutch engages. You can start a car moving with an idling engine after a bit of practice. From there, “adding some gas” is a simple proposition. I’ve even taught a few adults how to shift for themselves using this technique, but it is clear to me that some have the natural ability, and some will always struggle a bit with the method. For them, we have “automatics,” which are also good for driving while drinking coffee and talking on the phone.

My wife is an expert shifter as she takes our pickup truck through the gears, even with its long and ungainly shifter. I don’t let her drive my sports car (although she’s snuck it out a few times), but I’m sure she would have no problem with that Mazda shifter which only moves about one-quarter of an inch in going from first to second and is apparently lubricated with butter because nothing else would be so smooth. I’m pretty sure the Miata could be shifted using only mental telepathy, it’s so easy, but I prefer doing it by hand. A little too futuristic to just think it into gear.

There is a secret to a good shift. I starts with the correct hand position. Don’t push the lever side-ways. No, just let the mechanism take the inevitable trajectory with only the slighted hint from the palm of your hand or you curved fingers when pulling down into second or fourth or sixth — all right, sixth is a little hard give a bit of a push. I used to put the old delivery truck shifter in the palm of my hand facing the windshield and just smoothly move the hand up. It would jump into second as smooth as silk. Then grasp the handle with palm down to move into third. It is all about hand position and no conscious effort required. You really do just “think it into gear.”

Some modern cars with automatics have added shifting ability, with the controls a little tab on the steering wheel. Even a little, cute “plus” and “minus” symbol to indicate direction of the shift. A little too much of the “Jetsons” for me as I’m “old school” … and simply, down-right “old.”

So that’s my story friends. I’m a gear jammer from way back. I admit the big truck I drive on Thursday for Habitat is an automatic, but I’d be at home with any lever that moves those little spinners in the gear box. Eight-speed, ten-, twelve-, it doesn’t matter. It’s in my blood, and I’d soon be zooming down the highway, double clutchin’ and talkin’ on the CB. So 10-4 good buddy, and see you on the flip side.

First gear, it's all right
Second gear, I'll lean right
Third gear, hang on tight
Faster, it's all right.