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The Cutting Edge of 1950s Technology

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

A whirlwind vacation in Memphis, Tennessee this week yielded, among other things, a visit to Sun Studios. This is the record studio famous for having discovered folks like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In addition to all sorts of interesting tales about the birth of rock and roll, the tour included a look at some seriously interesting 1950s – vintage recording equipment.

One rather unusual item was a ‘record cutting lathe’, the device that used to cut the lacquer master used to generate the negative ‘stamper’ that pressed the actual records. This particular one was a desktop machine about a yard across that must have weighed at least 100 pounds.

I happened to notice that one of the controls on this monster was labeled outside-in / inside out, presumably for selecting the direction in which the recording head moved as the master was cut. When the tour was over, I asked the docent why anyone would want to cut a record from the inside out.

She admitted she didn’t have an answer, but allowed as to how it was a good question. I did some research online later that day. Here’s what was revealed.

As you probably remember, LP records turned at 33-1/3 RPM, which amounts to about half a turn per second. But the length of one turn around is greater at the outside edge of the record than  toward the middle. So the speed of the stylus over the groove decreases as the program plays, starting at about 17 inches per second at the outside of the record and slowing to  about 8 inches per second at the inside.

This means that the fidelity of the recording is potentially better for the outermost grooves. Since most classical music starts out quietly and builds into a dynamic multi-instrument crescendo, it was deemed desirable by some to cut classical records from the inside out, so the more demanding end of the piece could enjoy the better performance of the outermost grooves. But it never really caught on, at least in part because it would completely confuse an automatic record changer.

It was, however, fairly commonly used for the recording of long, multi-disk transcriptions, where the odd sides would be recorded outside-in and even sides would be recorded inside-out. That way, listeners would not hear an obvious change in fidelity on the transition between disks.

I’m consistently amazed by how much our progenitors were able to achieve with so little to work with. I wonder if, sixty years from now, others will say the same about us.


RIP Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

What do you write in tribute for the first man to walk on another world?

It’s a tough act to follow, that’s for sure. If you’re of a certain age, you remember sitting in front of the television that night, gazing at the grainy black and white image, waiting, waiting, waiting… To this then-teenager it seemed like forever. And then, man’s first steps on the moon.

Being a techie, I can’t help but be amazed at what was accomplished with what they had to work with. The early 1960s: mechanical design done by hand, calculations done with a slide rule, and sitting atop close to five million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen hoping nobody dropped a decimal point. I read somewhere that when Kennedy delivered his famous speech in 1961 about “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth [by the end of the decade]”, the reaction of the rank and file at NASA was ‘What?! Is he out of his f*****g mind?’

But we pulled it off. And so my teen years were lived against the backdrop of Great Things happening. Sure, I was a child of a bunch of other things, too; the situation in Southeast Asia was nowhere near as inspiring. But that moon thing was tough to ignore. And it’s probably a factor in why I’m generally unsatisfied with status quos, even if they’re pretty good ones.

Not long ago, I came across this little gem:

The vaguely parabolic curve seems to unfortunately map to our achievement as a people over the same time period. Or maybe not; it’s tough to see into the future, as anyone alive on September 10, 2001 could tell you.

But its easier to do Great Things when Great Things are obviously happening around you. And it’s sad that the Great Things we’re doing today don’t have the panache of landing a man on the moon. Because some of them are pretty cool – miracle drugs that quietly save the lives of thousands who would otherwise have died of ‘natural causes’. New materials that make it possible to build structures, vehicles, and devices that would otherwise never have been built. The fact that we take it for granted that we can communicate with pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world instantly, and essentially for free. The list goes on. But it’s all incremental, and in a sense, expected.

I think a zeitgeist of Great Things happening around us inspires us to get more out of our lives. And that’s why things like the moon mission are important.

Thanks Neil. In addition to everything else, you made a difference for this kid.


An impressive technical achievement

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

There are a number of services out there that take the raw data feed provided by the FAA of flights in progress and convert it into something more interesting than a spreadsheet full of number.  seems to be the most popular of them, and as it works just fine for both private flights and air carriers, it can be a pretty handy thing.

Less so if you’re a celebrity, and you’re not particularly interested in having your private jet met by crowds of paparazzi every time you land somewhere. So the FAA created something called BARR, which stands for Block Aviation Registration Request. Get on the list, and the FAA will expunge your registration number from the data provided to third parties. Problem solved.

Except for a couple of techie types who saw the BARR program itself as a problem that needed to be solved. With a bit of work, they created’ve got a server that listens on a number of aviation frequencies and performs voice recognition to identify registration numbers of interest, thereby identifying planes whether their registration number is blocked or not.

From an engineer’s perspective, I’m quite impressed that it was possible to make this work… though I’m not sure just how reliable it can be. I suspect that the narrower the problem, the easier. That is, while it might be tough to generate a list of registration numbers detected, it would be somewhat easier to determine whether, for example, the registration number for Barbara Streisand’s plane was heard.

And of course, once you get past the technological achievement there are the privacy concerns. Part of me is of the mindset that if someone wants some privacy I’ll respect their wishes. But on the other hand, its tough to get upset about someone automating a process that could easily be done by a minimum-wage journalism intern sitting in front of an air-band scanner and writing down what he hears.

Bottom line, if I were Mr. Hoffman or Rezchikov (Openbarr’s creators), I’d run for a while, enjoy the fame, dodge the arrows, and then shut it down, saying ‘it was fun’. But on the other hand, the genie is now out of the bottle. It would be pretty trivial for someone else to replicate their effort and place the result in the public domain. So the lives of the paparazzi will remain incrementally simplified, at least until the next round.

Product Endorsement?

Monday, July 30th, 2012

When I created this blog, I never thought I’d be doing product endorsements. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing one for a product I’d never tried, or even touched. But this looks like too much fun to resist.

The product is called Bugasalt, and basically its a teeny low-power indoor-use shotgun that fires a tiny quantity of table salt over only a few feet, with the intent of causing mortal injury to flies and other bugs. The inventor, who identifies himself only as “Lorenzo… a working artist”, apparently got this thing to the pre-production stage via family financing, and is now collecting pre-orders to get it into full production.

I know what’s involved in product development, especially with an Asian source and engineering team, and my hat is off to Lorenzo. It seems like he’s about eighty percent of the way there, with only volume production and delivery remaining.

I’d been having thoughts about trying to build a fly eradicator based on one of those high-power blue solid-state lasers that are said to be able to light a match. That project is now on indefinite hold, which I’m sure my insurance company and local fire department are quite happy about.

Update – I’ve since purchased one of these, and its every bit as expected. Definitely worthwhile!



Monday, June 18th, 2012

Despite knowing about the shuttle retirement, a recent article saddened me. The Space Shuttle, for better or worse, has been described as the most complex machine ever built by man. Despite reliability and safety issues, the retired shuttles each have well over 100 million miles on the ‘clock’, and deserve both respect and honor. So, seeing a friggin’ spaceship sitting on a barge in the middle of the river, like so much trash, felt hopelessly depressing. Sure, it’s nice to know that they’re going to good homes. And I’m sure I’ll see one up close and in person at one museum or another, at some point. Perhaps the one now on board the Intrepid, on the shore of the mighty Hudson, though I’d have to reassess my intent to never visit New York City unless under duress.  But the visit will be like standing at the grave site of a loved one.

The last time I’d seen her alive was atop a dazzling orange flame, vanishing into the distance. Thanks to good luck and the generosity of a friend with a spare ticket, I’d witnessed the final launch of Discovery about a year and a half ago. Actually, there wasn’t much detail from where we stood, several miles away from the launch pad, along with thousands of others. But when that thing lit up, all the time, dollars and inconvenience of traveling a thousand miles to Florida instantly became worthwhile. On a purely visceral level the dazzling light and sound were captivating, in a way that television and print are just unable to capture. But knowing what was going on, that half a dozen men and women had just taken off on a 5-million mile jaunt, in a 27-year-old spaceship of a design known for killing all its crew every fifty missions or so, was just as extraordinary, though in a very different way.

All over, now.

I grew up as NASA did. When I was of single-digit age, Alan Shepherd was making his ballistic voyage. I was in high school when we walked on the moon. And I was at one of my early jobs on the day in 1986, when Challenger exploded. I remember a technician running into the lab shouting ‘The space shuttle blew up’. How could it be? We’d never lost one in the air until then.

Perhaps happier times are ahead. The SpaceX launch to the space station, Virgin Galactic, and others. $200k is still a bit much for me for a suborbital hop, as will be available in a few years. But if it got down to $20k, I’d give it a try. I don’t have a spare $20k laying around. But I could see making that in car payments over 5 years, and I’d gladly drive a junker for five years in exchange for that experience.

There will come a day, though, when Virgin Galactic or someone like them will lose a ship. It’s inevitable. So, would I still be willing to go if I knew the statistics were the same as the Shuttle, that is, every fifty or so missions, the ship is lost, with all hands.

I’m not as sure. But I hope I would.