Will There Ever Be an Apology for Covid Overreaction?

In the light of this story, and this one as well, I am more than ever glad that my daughter and I said “no” to the Covid shot and follow-on boosters. Of course, I know that any new vaccine or drug can have a small number of unfortunate side effects – but honestly, aren’t well-informed adults allowed these days to calculate the risks and make their own decision? Apparently not for many employees, who were ordered to get the Covid vaccine or be fired … and are now facing health problems that make Covid itself look like pretty small potatoes.

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Alton’s Farm

Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat?—better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live

                                    Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Alton died last week.  At 85,  the last of John Jerry and Lydia Machann’s family:  six boys and two girls surviving to adulthood.  He had remained on the family farm, making it yield enough (cattle, cotton, oil) to buy another plot and support him and his brother, AC, for their long lives.  When a third brother, Robert, took early retirement from his factory job and returned to the farm, he, too, bought another plot, left to Alton. A child when his family moved in, Alton died in the house they built to anchor that land.

The Machans were stubbornly individualistic:  half Machans; the other half Machanns.  However, with all those sons, the name died out quickly.  Half the sons were not the marrying kind, another was childless, another had a son and daughter but that son died far too young, and the third was my husband’s father –  an only child, whose children are all girls. The three brothers led quiet if demanding lives. In his last bedridden years, farm life went by his window – he worried about whether a cow ambling by needed deworming, he’d consult the weather reports to see what was coming and his bird books as he watched his feeder.

Before we married, my husband returned to Austin one Sunday, having signed away all but oil royalty rights to the land left by his grandparents.  All the siblings (or siblings’ representatives) had.  There were many rational reasons – for one, broken up it would not even support a lonely farmer.  Then, Alton wanted to farm.  He told his oldest friend about going to Waco, working in the factory for a week.  He returned ready to beg to stay on the farm; I can’t imagine his parents didn’t need another set of hands – farms generally do.   This signing was after his parents’ deaths.

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The Real Threat

The link to this story popped up in my Yahoo feed. Huh. I’m pretty much a devoted reader for various internet news aggregates, bloggers, and commenters; that there a massive scary (wooo-wooo!) threats from the rest of us aimed in the direction of the LGTBWXYZ-whatevers was purely news to me. From what I had gathered lately, threats of violence with regard to the LGTBWXYZ community were pretty much flying the other way, what with crazed overweight persons of indeterminate gender whining and weeping about how no one wanted to date them, getting fathers sacked from their jobs who made critical remarks at school board meetings about no safe spaces at school for straight kids, organized events featuring drag queen events for families (When did that concept become a thing, anyway!? With protection by the local Antifa chapter, no less.) and large gender-nonspecific persons with unnaturally-colored hair and facial piercings going on social media making blood-curdling threats of violence against anyone looking at a transperson sideways. Oh, and the gender-indeterminant shooting up schools and murdering children and staff, or just threatening to shoot up schools. As a genuine XX-gendered person with original-issue low-mileage lady parts, who (under medical supervision) squeezed out one offspring through them, and thereafter served as a military person of the XX-gender, and at the age that I am now, I consider myself to be a damned good judge of threatening situations and persons.

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The Erector Set

Here is an old post from my own blog. I thought it deserved another go.

Glenn Reynolds today has a link to Lionel Trains in the anticipation of Christmas. I had Lionel trains and eventually had HO gauge trains, as well. When I had sons old enough to play with trains, I built an elaborate train set in my garage. Then I learned that southern California is not the place for toy trains. The boys were outdoors all the time and the train set gathered dust.

Another toy that kids today will never have the chance to enjoy is the Erector Set. There is still a small source for this toy but the glory days of the Erector Set were long ago. The toy was invented by A.C. Gilbert in 1913. The story is interesting. Gilbert was a Yale Medical School graduate and had also won a gold medal, for the pole vault, in the 1908 Olympic Games. He had a new design bamboo pole that he used in his winning vault and he sold these, as well as other toys.

Like many residents of New Haven, Connecticut, he often took the train to New York City; and on one trip in 1911 he was inspired with what would be the most popular of his dozens of inventions.

Watching out the train window as some workmen positioned and riveted the steel beams of an electrical power-line tower, Gilbert decided to create a children’s construction kit: not just a toy, but an assemblage of metal beams with evenly spaced holes for bolts to pass through, screws, bolts, pulleys, gears and eventually even engines. A British toy company called Meccano Company was then selling a similar kit, but Gilbert’s Erector set was more realistic and had a number of technical advantages — most notably, steel beams that were not flat but bent lengthwise at a 90-degree angle, so that four of them nested side-to-side formed a very sturdy, square, hollow support beam.

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The Computer Age Turns 75

In February 1946, the first general purpose electronic computer…the ENIAC…was introduced to the public.  Nothing like ENIAC had been seen before, and the unveiling of the computer, a room-filling machine with lots of flashing lights and switches–made quite an impact.

ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was created primarily to help with the trajectory-calculation problems for artillery shells and bombs, a problem that was requiring increasing numbers of people for manual computations.  John Mauchly, a physics professor attending a summer session at the University of Pennsylvania, and J Presper Eckert, a 24-year-old grad student, proposed the machine after observing the work of the women (including Mauchly’s wife Mary) who had been hired to assist the Army with these calculations. The proposal made its way to the Army’s liason with Penn,  and that officer, Lieutenant Herman Goldstine,  took up the project’s cause.  (Goldstine apparently heard about the proposal not via formal university channels but via a mutual friend, which is an interesting point in our present era of remote work.)  Electronics had not previously been used for digital computing, and a lot of authorities thought an electromechanical machine would be a better and safer bet.

Despite the naysayers (including RCA, actually which refused to bid on the machine), ENIAC did work, and the payoff was in speed.  This was on display in the introductory demonstration, which was well-orchestrated from a PR standpoint.  Attendees could watch the numbers changing as the flight of a simulated shell proceeded from firing to impact, which took about 20 seconds…a little faster than the actual flight of the real, physical shell itself.  Inevitably, the ENIAC was dubbed a ‘giant brain’ in some of the media coverage…well, the “giant” part was certainly true, given the machine’s size and its 30-ton weight.

In the photo below, Goldstine and Eckert are holding the hardware module required for one single digit of one number.

The machine’s flexibility allowed it to be used for many applications beyond the trajectory work,  beginning with modeling the proposed design of the detonator for the hydrogen bomb.   Considerable simplification of the equations had to be done to fit within ENIAC’s capacity; nevertheless, Edward Teller believed the results showed that his proposed design would work. In an early example of a disagreement about the validity of model results, the Los Alamos mathematician Stan Ulam thought otherwise.  (It turned out that Ulam was right…a modified triggering approach had to be developed before working hydrogen bombs could be built.)  There were many other ENIAC applications, including the first experiments in computerized weather forecasting, which I’ll touch on later in this post.

Programming ENIAC was quite different from modern programming.  There was no such thing as a programming language or instruction set.  Instead, pluggable cable connections, combined with switch settings, controlled the interaction among ENIAC’s 20 ‘accumulators’ (each of which could store a 10-digit number and perform addition & subtraction on that number) and its multiply and divide/square-root units.  With clever programming it was possible to make several of the units operate in parallel. The machine could perform conditional branching and looping…all-electronic, as opposed to earlier electromechanical machines in which a literal “loop” was established by glueing together the ends of a punched paper tape.   ENIAC also had several ‘function tables’, in which arrays of rotary switches were set to transform one quantity into another quantity in a specified way…in the trajectory application, the relationship between a shell’s velocity and its air drag.

The original ‘programmers’…although the word was not then in use…were 6 women selected from among the group of human trajectory calculators. Jean Jennings Bartik mentioned in her autobiography that when she was interviewed for the job, the interviewer (Goldstine) asked her what she thought of electricity.  She said she’d taken physics and knew Ohm’s Law; Goldstine said he didn’t care about that; what he wanted to know was whether she was scared of it!  There were serious voltages behind the panels and running through the pluggable cables.

“The ENIAC was a son of a bitch to program,” Jean Bartik later remarked.  Although the equations that needed to be solved were defined by physicists and mathematicians, the programmers had to figure out how to transform those equations into machine sequences of operations, switch settings, and cable connections.  In addition to the logical work, the programmers had also to physically do the cabling and switch-setting and to debug the inevitable problems…for the latter task, ENIAC conveniently had a hand-held remote control, which the programmer could use to operate the machine as she walked among its units.

Notoriously, none of the programmers were introduced at the dinner event or were invited to the celebration dinner afterwards.  This was certainly due in large part to their being female, but part of it was probably also that programming was not then recognized as an actual professional field on a level with mathematics or electrical engineering; indeed, the activity didn’t even yet have a name.  (It is rather remarkable, though, that in an ENIAC retrospective in 1986…by which time the complexity and importance of programming were well understood…The New York Times referred only to “a crew of workers” setting dials and switches.)

The original programming method for ENIAC put some constraints on the complexity of problems that it could be handled and also tied up the machine for hours or days while the cable-plugging and switch-setting for a new problem was done. The idea of stored programming had emerged (I’ll discuss later the question of who the originator was)…the idea was that a machine could be commanded by instructions stored in a memory just like data; no cable-swapping necessary. It was realized that ENIAC could be transformed into a stored-program machine  with the function tables…those arrays of rotary switches…used to store the instructions for a specific problem. The cabling had to be done only once, to set the machine up for interpreting  a particular vocabulary of instructions.  This change gave ENIAC a lot more program capacity and made it far easier to program; it did sacrifice some of the speed.

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