Locklin on science

Shitty future: Bugman design versus eternal design

Posted in Design by Scott Locklin on February 4, 2020

I was yacking with nerds recently on the reason why some people enjoy owning  mechanical wristwatches. In the finance business or any enterprise sales org, wearing a mechanical wristwatch is well understood, like wearing a nice pair of leather shoes or a silk necktie. Tastes may differ, but people in that milieu understand the appeal. In tech, other than a small subculture  of people who wear the Speedmaster moon watch (because we all wanted to be astronauts), and an even smaller subculture who wear something like the Rolex Milgauss (some of us work around big atom-smashing magnets), the mechanical wristwatch is mostly a source of confusion.

You can dismiss it as an expensive status symbol (many things are; nice cars, nice bags, nice nerd dildo, nice anything), but the continued existence of the mechanical wristwatch is more than that. The wristwatch became popular after WW-1, and was a necessary piece of equipment in the time of the last great explorers, from the Everest and Polar expeditions to Jaques Cousteau‘s undersea adventures to the Moon landing. The association with this now historic, but still golden era continues to sell wristwatches.

The geared mechanical clockwork itself is ancient: we have no idea where/when it was invented, but we know the ancient Greeks had such mechanisms. While there is no evidence for or against it, it is possible that gear trains predate recorded civilization. The geared mechanical clock, like the pipe organ and the Gothic cathedral is a defining symbol of Western Civilization. Division of the day into mechanically measured hours  unrelated to the movements of the sun is a symbol of the defeat of the tyranny of nature by human ingenuity and machine culture.

As a piece of technology, wristwatches probably peaked around 1970 when quartz watches became a thing. Quartz watches are undoubtedly more accurate, and at this point you could probably stick a microdot which syncs to GPS atomic clocks anywhere. But the psychological framework, and the association with the last  human earthbound age of adventure and exploration remains. Watchmakers continue to innovate; my daily beater by Damasko contains a bunch of technology you usually only see in an experimental physics Ph.D. thesis (saw them all in mine anyway); ceramic bearings, martensitic steel, preferentially etched silicon springs, viton o-rings. None of this is necessary to build a good watch; it is just a tribute to the art of mechanical things and the creativity and artistry of the craftsman.

There is still much to be said for the mechanical wristwatch as a useful object. Whether it is self winding or manual, it doesn’t require batteries or plugging into USB ports, and it might keep track of any number of useful things. It’s also routine to make new ones waterproof. While quartz has more accuracy, for most purposes (including orbital mechanics navigation), mechanical watches are accurate enough it doesn’t matter. If it does matter, you can buy a hybrid quartz/mechanical self winding springdrive.  There is also the aspect of durability: if you take good care of them and avoid mishaps, most well made watches will continue to be serviceable without a major overhaul for … centuries. People hand them down to their grandchildren.

I expect there to be mechanical wristwatches made for as long as some remnant of Western Civilization continues to exist, if only to sell luxury products to the Chinese.  It’s a fundamental art form; a physical embodiment of the spirit of Western Faustian civilization.

I do not expect goofy innovations like the present form of “smart watches” to be around for as long. Smart watches are bugman technology.  They tell time … and do all kinds of other crap you don’t need such as informing you when you have email/slack updates, saving you the towering inconvenience of reading them a half second later on your phone or laptop. When you dump $600 on one of these goofy things, you can’t even expect it to be around in 20 years to give to the kids you (as a bugman) will never have, let alone 100 or 200 years as a $600 watch might. It isn’t because new “smart watches” have amazing new features which obsolete the old ones: it’s because the connectors and case will physically wear out and the operating system for your phone won’t support old models.

The difference between mechanical watches and smart watches is a sort of useful test case to generalize this sort of value judgement from. Consumerist capitalism has committed many great sins.   I could put up with most of them if they could get engineering aesthetics right. The world we live in is ugly.  Bugman engineering is one of the forms of ugliness which makes life more unpleasant than it needs to be.

Bugman devices are festooned with unnecessary LED lights. Whether it is a smoke alarm, a computer monitor switch, keyboard, power strip, DVD player, radio: you virtually never need an LED light to tell you that some object is hooked up to power. Especially objects which stay on all the time, like a smoke alarm or monitor. If you must have an indicator of activity; place a mechanical button on the object that makes a noise when you press it with power is on. Nobody is going to notice one among the sea of stupid little lights in a room have gone out. The time when it was “futuristic” to have little led’s all over your refrigerator or toaster is long past. Just stop it.

Bugman designed appliances have digital clocks you must set. There is no reason for your oven, blender, microwave, refrigerator, dish washer or water dispenser to know what time it is.  Power does go out on occasion (all the time in “futuristic” shit holes like Berkeley), and nobody wants to tell their stove what time it is. If you must have a clock; make one with a mechanical clock with hands you can easily move rather than navigating a 3 layer menu of membrane switches to set digits.

Bugman devices don’t use mechanical switches; they’re not “futuristic” enough. Capacitative switches are terrible and never work right. Touch screens on your car’s entertainment system are a horror. Membrane switches on your appliance or anything else are a planned obsolescence insult unless you are operating in a flammable or underwater atmosphere; the only reason to use membrane switches.

Bugman devices are besmirched with extraneous software and are networked when they don’t have to be. Being able to control your light bulb over wifi or bluetooth is almost never necessary. It is wasteful, a security nightmare and aesthetically disgusting. And no I don’t want my stove to be on the internet so its clock knows what time it is.

Bugman devices and services use invasive phone applications for payment instead of credit cards. If your device is hooked up to the internet enough to talk to a cell phone, it’s hooked up to the internet enough to use a credit card, crypto currency or paypal. Bugmen don’t mind the security and privacy nightmare of loading new executables on their nerd dildo phones.

Bugman devices complexify life and make people work rather than making their lives better. Every password, clock, networked device, app you have to manage, every battery you have to charge, change or replace is making your life worse. Bugman don’t care though; it helps fill the emptiness.

Bugman software substitutes software for actual experiences. Not all video games or online entertainment are bugman, but most VR applications or immersive social games (looking at you, Guitar Hero) are. Bugman sexuality; well, I bet they’re excited about sex robots.

Juicero, an internet equipped, phone interfacing, centrally planned/distributed subscription juice machine that costs $700 instead of a manual juicer that costs $10 and lasts multiple lifetimes.

Peloton: an internet equipped, exercise bicycle that costs $2000 plus subscription, as opposed to a $500 bike and some competitive friends.

Soylent is bugman food. It even looks like something the actual bug-man in the classic “The Fly” movie would eat. Hell, the bugmen in the media are trying us to get to eat actual bugs.

Many images and ideas from the excellent (arguably NSFW) “Shitty Future” twitter feed.

Golden age experimental physics memories

Posted in Design, physics by Scott Locklin on March 26, 2019

I’ve given some hints of my tastes in experimental physics, and that my taste is experimental physics rather than impotent theoretical cargo cult wanking. I didn’t exactly work on project SLAM, but my early work kinda had this flavor. I caught the last fumes of the heroic cold war age in experimental physics.

 

My first big project was an experiment for observing something called the quantum breaktime, which I believe nobody gives a shit about any more. If you observe a quantum (in our case, chaotic) system for a short period of time, it should look semiclassical. If you wait around long enough, because quantum bound systems are a recurrence map, it will end up looking quantum. Anyway, nobody cares any more, as it turned out to be a fairly trivial thing and nothing important was observed. But at the time it looked important; Anderson won the Nobel for a related idea, and so we tried to build a crazy contraption to observe the thing. None of it was my idea, other than a few gew-gaws to make it go, as I was just some redneck kid who was good at making mechanical things work. I think the PI on this project is still alive, shooting at crows in Kansas or some such thing, and the senior grad student (who graduated) has gone on to more gentle pursuits. I totally lost track of the laser jockey. Names withheld to protect the innocent.

Proof this actually happened; and I used to have hair

The physical embodiment of the idea was to build a couple cubic meters worth of vacuum chamber filled with calcium vapor and shoot lasers at it. The problem with calcium vapor is at the partial pressures we needed it at, the chamber needed to operate at 400 degrees C. Oh yeah, we also needed to distill the crap so we were only using one of the isotopes, to avoid some fine structure nonsense that would have sunk the whole experiment, but as I never got that far, we’ll just pretend it didn’t matter. So, calcium is a reactive metal that wants to bind with anything resembling an optical opening that can withstand a 500 degree C bake out. So, there was another chamber within the chamber, with a set of calcium fluoride windows resting on knife edges that hopefully would keep most of the calcium out of the main chamber and away from the seals and the sapphire windows that kept the air out and let the laser pulses in. Did I mention seals? Yeah, seals and 500/600 degree C bakes (you need to cook all the volatile shit out of the chamber at higher than operating temperatures) don’t get on well. You can’t use viton which is the ordinary high vacuum seal. You sure as shit can’t use conflats and copper due to different coefficients of expansion of stainless and OFHC copper. The PI came up with this brilliant thing involving bolts under preposterous strain, shallow spring like knife edges, and a thick brand of aluminum foil. I think it was used in the Mercury program and promptly forgotten by everyone but the PI who was actually alive and sentient in those days. I won’t tell you what we used to seal the optics; it was similarly insane (and, unlike the aluminum trick, carcinogenic) and found by scouring the literature using INSPEC and paper indexes rather than the garbage you ninnies use on your nerd dildos. I tested both technologies, and to my minor amazement, they both worked  reliably at the design temperatures.

The pump on this thing was something called a diffusion pump. You pump on the chamber with a piston driven mechanical roughing pump to rough it out to 10^-3 torr or whatever, then you fire up the diffusion pump. Diffusion pumps boil some dense fluid which makes a spray through various trumpet like things in a big cooled metal tube, and it creates a pumping action which works sort of like how the shower curtain gets sucked inward when the shower is on. The dense fluid is sometimes mercury, which is why every experimental atomic physicist of a certain age has a mad hatter twitch, though in this experiment, we used some weird fluorodated oil made by Dow-Corning which we hoped wouldn’t explode when calcium vapor hit it. On top of the diffusion pump sits some water cooled baffles and a “trap” of liquid nitrogen, which catches any stray diffusion pump operating fluid molecules and prevents them from futzing up the vacuum too badly. Believe it or not, this kind of pump stack was dirt standard for 60s-90s atomic physics before turbo pumps and ion traps became cheaper. Probably still often used where you need high pumping power in a relatively small place.

Now, to do atomic physics, generally speaking, you also need lasers. The kinds of experiments we were doing you needed pump and probe stuff. This was mostly someone else’s responsibility, at least in the early days, but I was keenly aware of the laser systems as I had to observe proper safety procedures when the laser setup was being run in the same room with me. Our stack consisted of a UV excimer laser (which lived in the other room and ran on poisonous gas and high voltage electricity), an infrared YAG setup which fed a dye laser which I believe made green light when everything was working right. There was probably a KDP crystal or two in it somewhere, since momentum generally must be conserved, and since I remember the laser jockey blowing them up from time to time to powerful slavic imprecations. I don’t remember how many watts these things were, but you could light each other’s pantaloons on fire with some of the things. The dye laser setup used DMSO, a membrane penetrant used to deliver drugs through the skin, and a soup of carcinogenic and poisonous dye (I believe it was coumarin). A dye laser is basically a pump and high pressure hose with some optics around it, and it would occasionally spectacularly explode, shooting deadly DMSO dye goop all over the place. It never hit anyone important. Oh yeah, in case some of you don’t have laser safety training: green light, IR and UV; what do you use for safety goggles? I’ll tell you what you use: a  steel bucket on your head.

 

Remember how the excimer laser was in the other room? How do you think the laser light got into the magic show room of tremendous grad student danger? Well, I couldn’t tell you exactly how this happened, but there was a convenient hole in the wall. I heard a rumor someone rented an electric jackhammer and blew a hole in the (load bearing) wall over a long weekend. The past is a foreign country, and the late 20th century was different, I tell you.

 

There’s all kinds of interesting little details here; how do you build something to hold the vacuum chamber up while you’re baking it? It can’t be well thermally connected to anything or all the heat will bleed out where you don’t want it. It can’t expand or contract at much different rates from the vacuum chamber steel. Oh yeah, and since you have two chambers made of of stainless steel, and barely touching each other, you needed to thermally link them together with a big spring loaded bar of OFHC copper.  Finally, how do you make an oven which bakes the thing to those kind of temperatures? Turns out, rockwool blankets and big ceramic resistors I found in a junkpile fed by silica coated wires worked pretty good.  If I happen to die of mesothelioma, I’ve always harbored the view that rockwool can cause this as easily as asbestos -feel free to name it after me. I won’t even mention the microwave feed throughs and  high-Q niobium microwave cavity that was supposed to fit into the thing, as I never really believed it possible to do this. All of this was done using two line equations and graphing paper rather than the preposterous finite element analysis people waste time with now, and it worked just fine.  на коленки.

Finally an illustrative anecdote: at one point I was putting liquid nitrogen into the trap for a vacuum test, and did so too rapidly. Just like they said it might in the manual, the trap cracked from cooling it too fast, rendering it a leaky paperweight. I knew there was another trap of identical manufacture hooked up to a chamber in an abandoned lab across the hallway (physics departments in them days had all kinds of weird stuff across the hallway; punched tape CP/M machines, weird pumps, high voltage DC generators, farad tier high voltage capacitors with no internal resistance, depleted uranium bricks, etc). I considered just pulling it out of the other setup. I thought about it for a few minutes, and realized I should manfully admit my blunder to the PI first, because who knows what kind of bonkers shit was going on in that old lab across the hall when it was active. Well the PI was real understanding, as he had blown up a nitrogen trap or two in his day, and thought it was a swell idea to nick the nitrogen trap across the hall to save a few bucks and some leadtime on a new trap … oh wait a minute, that might have been the chamber they used for the atmospheric plutonium experiments. Here’s the stack of (60s vintage, probably slightly radioactive) safety sheets on plutonium, and go borrow the mica-window Geiger from Jimmy down in the other building.  I did my best on the safety front; I wore a HEPA dust mask, some gloves and a baseball umpire vest I found somewhere. I gingerly stuck the mica business end around the inside of the vacuum chamber with the matching nitrogen trap bolted onto it.  Plutonium is weird shit; I think it’s an alpha emitter. I know you have to get right on top of it with the counter or you can’t see it at all. Well, I found some plutonium all right; so much it actually shorted out the Geiger tube -you could hear it shorting out bzzz bzzz bzzz. I gingerly shut the thick plexiglass door and tried to never go into that abandoned lab again.

 

My experience wasn’t particularly dangerous or weird, but it was from a bygone era. I mean, pretty much everyone in that lab (including me at the time) smoked. In the lab. Next to the mercury diffusion pumps and poisonous shit. By the time I arrived at LBNL, a mere year or two later, I was doing nonsense like attending weekly safety circle, and signing up for  classes on how to safely use the sonicator and a beaker of acetone for cleaning UHV parts. LBNL had plenty of dangerous stuff around, and jerks would regularly create dangerous conditions; mostly because they were visitors and tragedy of the commons, so it was probably necessary. It felt oppressive though. You could tell it wasn’t always thus; I distinctly remember a photo of someone (probably Owen Chamberlain, though somehow I remember Segre or Luis Alvarez) smoking a pipe next to 1000 gallons of liquid hydrogen bubble chamber.

 

not the photo, but like it

I don’t know if there are lessons to be learned here. The project fizzled out a few months after I joined it because the Clinton administration were weasels who preferred to spend the “peace dividend” putting factory workers in prison while they outsourced the industrial base to China. Maybe the way we used to do things was ridiculously super dangerous and we’re all lucky to be alive. Maybe it is OK to play fast and loose with safety, because frankly time is more precious than a 2% higher probability of dying prematurely. All I know was it was fun living like this, just like it was more fun riding a bicycle before they made you wear a helmet.  The attitude was healthy, even if the environment objectively wasn’t. I am pretty sure people routinely do vastly more dangerous things in unsavory hobbies. I’ll probably never do experimental physics again; if I do it will be at least this ridiculously awesome.

Dynamite Cruiser Vesuvius

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on February 16, 2018

The 1800s were a time of revolution in technology. Everyone knows about the  H.M.S. Dreadnought, which made all other proto-battleships obsolete. There were a few false starts along these lines which were also interesting. One of the most hyped ones, at least as hyped as “stealth ships” or the “littoral combat ship” was the idea of the Dynamite Cruiser.

The Dynamite Cruiser Vesuvius was the only example of the kind. It was about as high tech as they come. Instead of using explosives to launch projectiles, it used compressed air. This made the first salvo completely silent. The main innovation was that the brobdingnagian 15″ guns which shot enormous quantities of explosive at the enemy. It was much faster than conventional ships, being lightly armored (only 900 tons, compared to an average of 4000 tons for a typical warship of its class) and equipped with enormous engines. The idea was to sneak up on the enemy, silently lob a couple of tons of dynamite on them and stealthily slip away. Back in the day, the perfidious Yankee’s idea was to build an enormous fleet of cheap  Dynamite Cruisers to challenge the European domination of the seas.

lookit dem gunz

In those days, filling shells with high explosives was a tricky business. To place this technology in historical context: the fact that it used an electric detonator was considered a really big deal. This thing was commissioned in 1890; a time when electricity and magic were pretty close to indistinguishable. We don’t have a parallel today, simply because technology has not advanced since 1970 or so, but imagine being in 1970 and being told you’d be able to carry a cell phone some day; that’s about the same as electrically detonated shells in 1890.


Black powder was still the main propellant used in launching shells back in those days: “smokeless” powders like cordite had not quite been invented yet. Guncotton was still high technology stuff of science fiction (in fact, this thing used a form of guncotton in its shells). Lots of early explosive shells would just explode inside their guns. So, early battle ships either used low explosives or solid shells. Everyone knew about dynamite: it was the new wonder technology of the age. More stable forms of high explosive which could survive launch via cannon hadn’t been discovered yet: picric acid explosive shells were some years away. TNT wasn’t used in shells until 1902. The main idea of the Dynamite Cruiser was to launch the fairly unstable explosive by a sort of aerial torpedo so it wouldn’t blow up inside the launching vessel’s cannon.

Image result for dynamite cruiser vesuvius

The fact that nobody has ever heard of the Vesuvius means it probably had a few problems. First problem: since it was a pneumatic launched projectile, it couldn’t use a gun turret. It was impossible to build air hoses which could withstand much pressure and be flexible enough to rotate. To this day, torpedo tubes only point forward or aft for the same reason. This meant the Vesuvius had to point itself at the enemy and hope that the bobbing of the sea didn’t bounce the point of impact around too much: a futile hope. It was also an extremely structurally unsound boat. It was built like a streamlined Yacht. But the designers managed to forget about the enormous cannon it sported in the front. This made it almost impossible to maneuver. In fact, it made the thing so structurally unsound, the bolts that held it together would explosively sheer in choppy water. The tanks and compressors which drove the cannon took up so much space in the boat, there wasn’t much room for people to do useful work. It was so cramped, it could only carry 30 shells. It also had a tiny beam, which, while useful for making for a good top speed, made it incredibly unstable as a gun platform; it rolled enormously and at a period of once every two seconds. Not good at all for a gun platform.

dem air valves

It was eventually used in the Spanish American war to bombard Cuba. It did succeed is scaring the crap out of the Spaniards, since they didn’t hear the report of the guns before it was raining humid dynamite. However, whatever damage it caused was accidental. The ineffectiveness of dynamite bombardment was rapidly realized, so the mighty Dynamite Cruiser was relegated to courier duties. Eventually it was refitted as an ordinary Torpedo boat, and then ignominiously sold for scrap.

I don’t know if there are any lessons to be learned from the Vesuvius. I guess the main one is a weapons system should be used in combat or something close to it before it is declared the latest thing. If we want to compare this giant leap forward in technology to modern American naval vessels, the LCS are so incredibly silly and can barely remain afloat.  Perhaps the Naval drone is more comparable in being “advanced,” expensive and completely untried. Or perhaps the government actually consists of anointed military genius Frederick Barbarosa types and I’ve been taking too much advantage of California’s legal marijuana crop in 2018.

I originally read about this thing in a Patton essay. Perhaps the best way to close is with what Patton said.

“When Samson slew the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, he probably created such a vogue for the weapon that throughout the world no prudent donkey dared to bray. Certainly the advent of the atomic bomb was not half as startling as the initial appearance of gunpowder. In my own lifetime, I remember two inventions, or possibly three, which were supposed to stop war; namely the dynamite cruiser Vesuvius, the submarine, and the tank. Yet, wars go blithely on and will when our great-grandchildren are very old men.”

Please stop writing new serialization protocols

Posted in Design, fun by Scott Locklin on April 2, 2017

It seems that every day, some computer monkey comes up with a new and more groovy serialization protocol.

In the beginning, there was ASN.1 and XDR, and it was good. I think ASN.1 came first, and like many old things, it was very efficient. XDR was easier to use. At some point, probably before ASN.1, people noticed you could serialize things using stuff like s-expressions for a human readable JSON like format.

Today, we have an insane profusion of serializers. CORBA (which always sucked), Thrift,  protocol buffers,  Messagepack, Avro,  BSON,  BERT, Property Lists, Bencode (Bram … how could you?), Hessian, ICEEtch, CapnProto (because he didn’t get it right the first time), SNAC, Dbus, MUSCLE, YAML, SXDF, XML-RPC, MIME, FIX, FAST,  JSON, serialization in Python, R, PHP, ROOT and Perl… Somehow this is seen as progress.

Like many modern evils, I trace this one to Java and Google. You see, Google needed a serialization protocol across thousands of machines which had versioning. They probably did the obvious thing of tinkering with XDR by sticking a required header on it which allowed for versioning, then noticed that Intel chips are not Big Endian the way Sun chips were, and decided to write their own  semi shitty versioning version of XDR … along with their own (unarguably shitty) version of RPC. Everything has been downhill since then. Facebook couldn’t possibly use something written at Google, so they built “Thrift,” which hardly lives up to its name, but at least has a less shitty version of RPC in it. Java monkeys eventually noticed how slow XML was between garbage collects and wrote the slightly less shitty but still completely missing the point Avro. From there, every ambitious and fastidious programmer out there seems to have come up with something which suits their particular use case, but doesn’t really differ much in performance or capabilities from the classics.

The result of all this is that, instead of having a computer ecosystem where anything can talk to anything else, we have a veritable tower of babel where nothing talks to anything else. Imagine if there were 40 competing and completely mutually unintelligible versions of html or text encodings: that’s how I see the state of serialization today. Having all these choices isn’t good for anything: it’s just anarchy. There really should be a one size fits all minimal serialization protocol, just the same way there is a one size fits all network protocol which moves data around the entire internet, and, like UTF-8. You can have two flavors of the same thing: one S-exp like which a human can read, and one which is more efficient. I guess it should be little-endian, since we all live in Intel’s world now, but otherwise, it doesn’t need to do anything but run everywhere.

IMO, this is a social problem, not a computer science problem. The actual problem was solved in the 80s with crap like XDR and S-expressions which provide fast binary and human readable/self describable representations of data. Everything else is just commentary on this, and it only gets written because it’s kind of easy for a guy with a bachelors degree in CS to write one, and more fun to dorks than solving real problems like fixing bugs. Ultimately this profusion creates more problems than creating a new one solves: you have to make the generator/parser work on multiple languages and platforms, and each implementation on each language/platform will be of varying quality.

I’m a huge proponent of XDR, because it’s the first one I used (along with RPC and rpcgen), because it is Unixy, and because most of the important pieces of the internet and unix ecosystem were based on it. A little endian superset of this with a JSON style human semi-readable form, and an optional self-description field, and you’ve solved all possible serialization problems which sane people are confronted with. People can then concentrate on writing correct super-XDR extensions to get all their weird corner cases covered, and I will not be grouchy any more.

It also bugs the hell out of me that people idiotically serialize data when they don’t have to (I’m looking at you, Spark jackanapes), but that’s another rant.

Oh yeah, I do like Messagepack; it’s pretty cool.