Category Archives: S&T amusements

Legacy IT for Kiddies

Mackie, put down Angry Birds!  Vickie, take out those ear buds!  Daddy wants to tell you about old fashioned information technology.  I’ll make this short.

Book.  These were handheld devices that told a story written by a Published Author, which meant that a publisher thought it was good enough to gamble some money to print it.  Thus they were usually pretty good, compared to the blog drivel that anyone can post. [Recursive reference: like this]

Encyclopedia. A shelf full of books, similar to Wikipedia, but with alphabetical topics.  It had links, but you often had to get off your duff to get another volume.

Book Store.  Similar to, except you had to drive there.  You could drink their coffee while you read.  Coffee sales did not pay the rent, and replacing the coffee stained books, so these have disappeared.

Library.  Similar to bookstores, but free.  That is, they were paid for by the taxpayers.  The Tea Party decided that they were not worth it.

Telephone.  A early cell phone, amazingly connected to the wall by a short cord.  No one could call you while you were trying to trying to drive onto an expressway.  Nice, but the down side was that there was no way to turn them off.  Your daddy once stuffed a phone’s bell with Kleenex, when being repeatedly called by a drunk wanting a cab home.

Typewriter.  Similar to Word, but incredibly primitive.  You retyped a whole page if you made one mistake.

Computer. By just plugging wires into sockets, you could make a little spot of light bob up and down, if you also knew differential equations.

Movie.  A dark place for teenagers to make out.  [No change]

You get the idea.  Readers, if any, are invited to add to this list in the comments.

R. D. Shelton

Gullible’s Travels: Adventures in Slobbovia III

…being the worldwide travels of R. Duane Gullible, a wide-eyed seeker of scientific truth and technology prowess

Our last account chronicled Gullible’s trips to formerly secret sites in the hinterlands, and his escape from a nuclear power plant, just before an unfortunate accident.  This concluding episode relates his misadventures in trying to introduce surviving Slobbovian scientists to the miracles of the free market.

Numerous trips to Slobbovia had revealed to me the incredible diversity of the country, its peoples, and its huge S&T establishment. Like the top of the hierarchy with its two levels of doctorates and then the academician level, the bottom also needed additional levels of detail.  At technical schools there were not just departments of electrical engineering, but these were divided into sub-departments like electrical energy, electronics, et al. and these were further divided into sub-sub-departments like industrial electronics, military electronics, avionics, and more.

Similarly, their Academy of Sciences had hundreds of institutes scattered all over the hinterlands specializing in everything imaginable, and some unimaginable.  I spent a very long afternoon at an institute of cryobiology with scores of scientists dedicated to trying to freeze living organisms.  I asked, “What is the largest animal that has survived so far?”  My guide answered by showing me a wiggling frog that had just come back from frost-world.  By now they might be up to homo sapiens, which was clearly their goal.  I illustrated my trip report with a Far Side cartoon, showing a disheveled visitor, much like Gullible, tripping over and pulling out the extension cord that that kept cool a room full of large bell jars with such human specimens. Gary Larson hates copyright violations, so I’ll leave this image to your imagination.

On each visit, I watched as the Slobbovian empire, once proud and feared, rapidly self-destructed.  Where there was once one superpower, there were now 15 poor republics and a half-dozen poor former satellites, all trying to feed themselves in a unfamiliar free market.  Scientists, particularly, went overnight from the top of the heap to its bottom, since they were in huge oversupply.   Those institutes could no longer even afford electric lights, so scientists worked by natural light, pale and fleeting in these latitudes.  I tried to raise some money from the US Agency for Intergalactic Development for business incubators to help their scientists beat swords into plowshares.  After our second proposal was rejected, one USAID official revealed, “This is a good idea, but all our money is earmarked by Congress.”  “Hmm,” I said, and returned with a sizable earmark.

Setting up shop in one of the former Slovobbian republics was also much like Innocents Abroad.  Our first office landlord told us that arcane government restrictions prevented us from simply leasing space; we had to contract with him for services, with space as an incidental.  After we were thrown out by his landlord, we found that his lease simply prohibited subleases.  We accessorized our second office with security in cammis toting AK-47s.  Our shared apartment was yet more a blunder of naifs.  Even in this satiric guise, I had better forgo describing its humorous twists.  At the time, Slobbovians could hire a hit man for one of those US C-notes.  It’s more expensive now, but I’m still chicken.

Mainly what we did was teach a lot of scientists and engineers how to write a business plan, to try to raise capital, and to navigate the maze of government obstacles to setting up a business–still designed in the Slobbovian fashion of requiring greasing of innumerable palms to do the simplest thing.

Actually corruption in such instantly underdeveloped countries has its advantages.  It’s illegal for Americans to bribe anyone abroad to get things done–unlike all our foreign competitors.  So, of course, I never did that.  But as an individual with a few bucks in my pocket, I felt rich and powerful for the first time in my life.  Any problem could easily be overcome with a small fee; here’s an incident to illustrate.  A local friend of ours accidently ran over and killed a luckless pedestrian.  Facing a likely fatal term in a chilly jail, he then made the rounds of his friends to raise money to solve the problem.  The file in the local police station then disappeared, so the incident never happened.

We had lots of competition in teaching Slobbovians the wonders of the free market. The invisible hand had quickly seized Slobbovia by the throat.  At the top, obsolete socialist assets like oil fields and diamond mines were privatized for peanuts (including small fees for those in charge) by a handful of oligarchs, who instantly became the billionaires a capitalist society needed as role models.  The billboards now all advertised the latest Ponzi schemes, eagerly invested in by everyone, hoping to not be the last sucker out. It was hard to walk down the street through the throngs of earnest salesmen from the pyramid marketing schemes of the West.  And at the bottom, formerly secure babuskas in rags knelt on those icy sidewalks offering to pray for your soul for a kopeck, far less than a penny.

Why did Slobbovia self destruct? Some US politicians like to take credit for pushing them over the edge.  There were so many factors involved, it is hard to decide which was most important: their humiliating defeat in Afghanistan (the graveyard of empires), the financial overreach of their command economy, their rocketing of many of their resources out into space, and the rampant corruption, which was how their system actually worked instead of altruistic models.  I’ve written this to draw a parallel to current events for my [right] wing nut friends.  Actually, I think the decisive event was simply the accession of a leader who, for the first time, was unwilling to shoot people to keep the Slobbovian Empire intact, a lesson not lost on his successors.

R. D. Shelton

Gullible’s Travels: Adventures in Risingsunland

 …being the worldwide travels of R. Duane Gullible, a wide-eyed seeker of scientific truth and technology prowess

My first business trips abroad were to Risingsunland, a distant place with a sinister past. My dad had fought them in the Philippines, when they were trying to establish the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which involved killing a whole lot of their neighbors, and Americans at places like Bataan.  He got called up again for the Korean War, and tarried awhile in their land.  He went on some home visits organized by the USO to meet their people and was puzzled by the contradiction between their hospitality and their cruelty during the last war.

All cultures draw a distinction between appearance and reality, but here tatamae and honne seem more entrenched.  I myself went to their land eight times and was always treated with the greatest hospitality, but it wasn’t until I went to nearby Korea that I found friendship.  Despite their famed import of the best of foreign cultures, the natives of Risingsunland can’t get over their feeling of superiority to foreigners themselves.  And if you put yourself in their shoes, you can understand why they have such a low opinion of us.

Imagine yourself to be one of their stereotypical visitors to the US, with the latest camera dangling from your neck and a billfold full of bills.  Your first impression of the US would be that it is ankle-deep in trash, many of the people live in slums, and it is dangerous to step outside your hotel. The streets are filled with morbidly obese people in shorts, who don’t work hard enough to make their country great again.  I’m sorry to be so blunt, but all this is a shock for these visitors from abroad, who have never seen a gum wrapper on their streets.

But to get to the point of this narrative, I started going to Risingsunland in the 1980s to find out how they were coming to manufacture some of the world’s best high-tech products.  These were originally based on US inventions like the VCR, but they were starting to develop their own, challenging US leadership of S&T.  This had all proved to be so profitable that they had quickly gone from the rags of WWII to the riches of the information age.

This is supposed to be funny, so let me relate my first experience with the then exotic delicacy I tried on my first day there–raw fish.  I was gingerly trying the morsels artistically arranged on my plate when I came to a green substance, about the size of a ping pong ball.  I popped it into my mouth and swallowed it, and was launched off my stool like a rocket.  Foods from Risingsunland like sushi and wasabi are now as common as BigMacs in the US, mostly purveyed by Korean restauranters, a phenomenon that natives of Risingsunland find hilarious.

Our delegations toured the giant companies that were already household names in the US.  I remember vividly going by elevator to the second floor headquarters of a famous keiretsu.  When I got off, just in front of me in the vacant hallway was a famous painting by Renoir, apparently unguarded, but I’ll bet it was, by that high-technology they were so proud of.

We soon noticed that they were in their offices before we arose, and were still there when we collapsed into our beds, so working hard certainly had a lot to do with their success.  We also noticed that they knew what was going on in S&T all over the world, not just in their country.  Everything worked like a Swiss watch, although they were now mostly made in Risingsunland.  Of course, their economic success relied on more people than just engineers, scientists, and factory workers.  Government officials also worked overtime to make sure the economic climate nurtured the export sector.  In this strange land, top corporate executives were patriotic and also lived modestly, compensated at a mere 100 times their lowest paid worker. (You wouldn’t believe the ratio in our country.)  One profession was notable by its absence: they did not allow more than a handful of lawyers to be created, since they thought that litigation was wasteful.  There were no torts to be reformed, because arbitration (or their Mafia) settled disputes quietly.

One of our delegations wanted to find out how they were able to fund five times as much construction R&D as in the US.  Their embassy was immediately concerned about this study, and bought us a fancy dinner even before we left the US.   They decided that we were harmless, and indeed our final report praised their bidding practices that allowed their construction companies to make enough profits to fund that R&D.  We should be more like them, was the recommendation.  Soon afterward in 1993 an investigative reporter exposed a giant network of corrupt relations between the construction industry and the ruling party.  The companies took turns winning government construction contracts at prices that guaranteed a handsome profit, much of which was kicked back to the party.  This expose brought the government down, for the first time in 40 years.  Why didn’t we see this poison in the construction sector?  Our delegations are staffed with geeks like me who look at things through S&T blinders; some broader issues like payola are beyond our ken.

There was just one hitch with the S&T model that had quickly made Risingsunland rich; they didn’t have a patent on it.  Their neighbors were envious and quickly copied these methods.  Some neighbors worked even harder, some worked even smarter, and some were just so numerous that a little country with no natural resources and high prices could not compete with them.

And I guess that it’s timely to mention that the bursting of a gigantic financial bubble, based on overpriced real estate, has crippled their economy since the early 1990s.

R. D. Shelton

Gullible’s Travels: Adventures in Slobbovia II

…being the worldwide travels of R. Duane Gullible, a wide-eyed seeker of scientific truth and technology prowess

Our last account chronicled Gullible’s travel to the Slobbovian capital and his delighted, but alarmed, reactions to some of their latest technologies.  In this issue, Gullible travels to formerly secret sites in the hinterlands, now open for business with the West.

My first impression of the Slobbovian capital was that it was cold, gray, and dark, with no neon lights to lighten the mood.  The whole city looked like the grim post-industrial districts of Western cities that had lost all their manufacturing jobs. The streets were covered with snow and mud, because dirt was spread on the ice to keep the pedestrians upright. There were many construction projects, but most seemed to be abandoned.  I asked Igor, “Why are those apartment buildings crumbling, even before they’re completed?” He said that it was because crooked builders mostly used sand, instead of cement, in the concrete. But inside once you took your muddy boots off, there was a delightful, colorful world of concerts, ballets, operas, theatres–because the Slobbovian state subsidized the arts as much as the sciences.

And what about that science establishment?  I got a briefing from an actual government Minister (they had many) on their pride and joy.  In the West, if you had a modicum of sense, you could get a Ph.D.  But that was just the beginning in Slobbovia.  Their science establishment was so enormous (they had more engineers than the rest of the world put together) that they needed additional layers in the S&T hierarchy.  There, after getting your Ph.D., if you worked hard and smart for ten years, and joined the right party (easy since there was only one),  you got your real Sc.D degree. And that was still not the top layer. The best of the best, and those with the best connections, went on to become an Academician. At this point you could finally say that you had arrived as a scientist or engineer, just in time for retirement.

In the capital, I was taken to see to the world’s longest continuously operating nuclear reactor, located underground, but surprisingly near the apartment blocks housing the nuclear research workers and everyone else.  They had cleverly disguised its entrance as an outhouse, little realizing that Western photoanalysts would not know what one was. I also toured the house of their great scientist who eliminated the West’s lead by making the first Slobbovian A-bomb.  To me it was telling that their highest reward was to give him a house built before the Slobbovian Revolution.

In the interests of my longevity, I decided to forgo any more trips on Air Slobbovia.  Besides, as a rail buff, I had heard that their trains were unsurpassed.  The country was so vast, however, that trips were measured in days, not hours.  But the scenery was spectacular; countless firs looked like Christmas trees with their real frost, ice, and snow decorations for much of the year. Foreigners paid more, but even so, the overnight rate in a luxurious two-person compartment cruising along at a stately 100 km/hr was less than a stationary Motel 6 at home.  On my first trip I discovered that these compartments were not segregated by gender, either.  As I was unpacking my toothbrush, a beautiful Slobbovian girl came in and took the other bunk.  This could be an interesting, trip, I thought, but a helpful Western woman happened to pass by the open door with her husband. “This will never do! she exclaimed, “George, you stay with Dr. Gullible, and this innocent young woman can sleep with me.”

Next morning I woke with a caffeine withdrawal headache, since I had not found the samovar with the hot tea.  As soon as we stopped, I sought my coffee fix at a cafe that showed signs of opening soon, because there was a long line of young men waiting outside.   I joined the queue, which soon stampeded into the cafe.  Each of the men quickly ordered a half liter of vodka, cheaper than water, which they gulped down before my coffee had brewed.  To each his own addiction, I mused.

Later that morning, I was taken to one of Slobbovia’s most advanced nuclear power plants to see the latest RBMK technology.  The chief engineer was busy with an experiment they planned to run that night, but he was gracious enough to show me around.  He was particularly proud of all the safety interlocks built into the system.  I noticed though, that all these were covered with red signs with strange characters and lots of exclamation points. I asked Igor to translate, and he said the writing warned that the interlocks were all disabled.  At the closing briefing, over generous vodka and zakuski, I had a chance to ask the chief about these.  He said, “Not to worry, we’re just going to run the reactor at a very low power level to see if it can still generate enough power to operate the cooling pumps.”  I said, “Isn’t the RBMK unstable at low levels?”  He brushed this off with a joke, “Have you heard the one about the airliner that became unstable and crashed on its approach to Warsaw? To see their capital, the Poles had rushed to the right half of the plane.”  On our way back to the regional capital nearby, Igor said, “I didn’t get the joke.”  “Don’t worry, Igor, it’s just an engineer’s in-joke, but the sooner we get away from here, the better I’ll feel,” I said.

… to be continued

R. D. Shelton

Gullible’s Travels: Adventures in Slobbovia I

…being the worldwide travels of R. Duane Gullible, a wide-eyed seeker of scientific truth and technology prowess

Late in the last millennium, I ventured a voyage to the realm of Slobbovia, long shrouded in mystery by the Cold War between our countries. Most of what I knew came from Al Capp’s graphic treatments of the wonders of this vast, frozen utopia. Now a new spirit of glasnost offered me my first chance to learn about the achievements of their numerous, and distinguished, wizards of science, technology, and metaphysics

I had packed an attache case full of C-notes to purchase some of their top technologies, since I had heard that the Slobbovian economy was yet innocent of plastic, banks too-big-to-fail, and other free market marvels. I had heard, however, that all the locals already had hoards of our $100 bills, which many Americans had never seen.

To get over my culture shock early, I had chosen to travel on Air Slobbovia, which itself featured advanced airliners, huge and powerful. I did notice the engines made a strange kapokita-kapokita sound when revving up for take off. My acclimatization soon started when the beautiful flight attendant, instead of coffee or tea, offered me compote, made by briefly dipping a small piece of fruit in a glass of water. The long flight to their capital was uneventful, but when we made our approach, I noticed an alarming sight: both sides of the runway were littered with the wreckage of Air Slobbovia airliners. Our plane touched down with a thud, harder than I thought survivable, but the Slobbovians on board broke into applause. My seatmate told me that was their custom, to celebrate arriving alive.

Going through passport control was another adventure. The grim officer directly asked me if I was a spy, since I was coming from the country that had been their arch enemy for decades. I chuckled at this thought, “Well, sort of, I am here to buy for a pittance the best results of your research and development, gained at great cost to your country.” He frowned, “Then you no pass.” “Wait!”, I said, “can’t we work this out?” “Is that a Cross pen in your pocket?” he replied. We soon made a deal, and I was able to enter, but not before he opened my attache case to show the bills to the mob of hard-eyed gypsy taxi drivers at the next barrier.

Fortunately, I was met by Igor, my KGB minder, with a huge limousine styled like a 1950s Packard. I learned that it had been lent to me by the country’s top scientist, who somehow thought that I was important. This was my first chauffeured limo ride, since in our country engineers didn’t rate this treatment–perhaps Slobbovians really did live in a scientific utopia.

I was taken to their finest hotel, formerly only for top party officials, checked in, and went to the elevator to go to the penthouse they had reserved for me. As I was about to get in, I noticed that the elevator (a) had no doors, and (b) did not stop to let passengers on. “Isn’t that dangerous”, I asked. “Yes”, Igor replied, “but this advanced elevator is much more efficient, and did you notice how agile the passengers were in leaping on and off? As Darwin taught our founders, natural selection leads to excellence in survival.” I walked up.

To be continued.

R. D. Shelton

Animal Race: A Fable

My little kids wondered why I was blogging so much, so I wrote this version for them, with apologies to Orwell and Aesop.

The eagle preened himself on his lofty perch overlooking a valley of lesser animals. As usual, the bear was stuffing himself with honey. The Asian tiger was searching for prey for his evening meal. A whole menagerie of other, more cultured, animals argued among themselves on how to find the food they deserved from all their hard work.  The dragon still dozed in his long afternoon nap.

Suddenly, an old, bearded wizard with a conical cap appeared from a cloud of fog. “Animals!” he cried, getting everyone’s attention except the dragon’s. “I have placed a great prize for you on the other side of yonder mountain. It is the secret of prosperity and security; if you are the first one there to win it, you’ll always have a full meal, and not fear attacks from any animal.” All the animals shouted out questions about how to find the prize, but the wizard disappeared just as quickly.

The commotion had even woke the dragon, who learned about the prize from the tiger. The animals looked at one another, and started sidling toward the mountain. They started moving faster and faster, and soon a full-fledged race was on. Of course, the eagle led the way, flying through the air with speed that other animals could only dream of.

And one by one, the other animals started faltering from the demands of the race. First the bear collapsed in a heap, unable to keep up with that belly full of honey. Then the tiger fell by the wayside, struck down by lack of carbs. Finally the whole zoo of other animals gave up, leaving only the eagle flying on. Onlookers cheered the eagle’s lead, and it was going faster than ever.

But, wait! Who was that far behind? The dragon was still shuffling along, but faster now.   No one noticed that the  dragon was actually gaining.  The eagle stopped to rest on a branch. While he slept, well, you know the rest of the story.

R. D. Shelton

PS: For Cliff Notes, see the other post for today. One lesson from this exercise is that the EU needs an animal mascot, even more than a president, if it expects people to refer to IT rather than THEM. But what animal? Since real animals are mostly taken, they might want a mythical one like the Chinese. Hydra, leviathan, centaur, minotaur, and others are available, although from their descriptions they should have been snapped up by high school football teams long ago.  I like the phoenix, but it would probably take the EU a decade to get unanimous agreement.