Friday, April 04, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVI: Change of Command


"He who defends everything, defends nothing." -- Frederick the Great

President Abraham Lincoln had a command problem. The popular perception of the Union military leadership has it that Lincoln had a "revolving door" of generals cycling in and out of top command. That's not exactly correct, but it's close enough to the truth for any ordinary purpose.

It's more true for the Army of the Potomac than for Commanding General. Lincoln went through no fewer than four commanders for the Army of the Potomac before finding the one who finished out the war in that post, where he only went through three Commanding Generals. The first commander of the Army of the Potomac was Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. He was sacked not long after Bull Run, which some might think unfair. The goat-rope at Bull Run wasn't really his fault ... but he took the fall for it anyway. His replacement was Major General George McClellan, who was serving double duty as Commanding General. Maybe two hats were a hat too far, so to speak; he was replaced by Major General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker. Both men were sacked after disastrous battles. Then, Major General George Meade took over as the Battle of Gettysburg was underway.

The Commanding General of the United States Army at the outset of the war was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. He was not well enough to serve as a wartime commander, which was unfortunate. He, more than anyone, knew what had to be done; he just wasn't in any shape to do it. And his first choice for his replacement, Colonel Robert E. Lee, went with Virginia when that state seceded. So, on November 1, 1861, Major General George McClellan took overall command. McClellan's tenure was ... well, mixed. He did turn the Army of the Potomac around after the disaster at Bull Run, and he did fortify Washington itself against assault. But he was not a very good overall commander. Lincoln tired of him quickly. He recalled Major General Henry Halleck from the West to take over. Halleck, as it happened, wasn't a bad administrator. He wasn't replaced as Commanding General for either infirmity or incompetence. It's just that a better man had come along.

That man, newly promoted to Lieutenant General, was Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was fresh from victories both at Vicksburg the previous summer, and Chattanooga the previous winter. He had earned a reputation as a dogged fighter, and Lincoln hoped he'd bring that pugnaciousness to his new post. Surprisingly, he retained both Halleck and Meade. Neither man was incompetent, both could indeed be quite able when given suitable direction. But he did have an idea of where he wanted to go from here.

What had saved the Confederacy time and again was the fact that they were able to redeploy troops internally. They were able to shift Longstreet's corps from Virginia to Tennessee, giving Bragg a very temporary favorable balance of forces. Really, there was only one way to keep that from happening.

If Davis were forced to defend the Confederacy, the entire Confederacy, he'd be too hard pressed to reinforce anyone, from anywhere. What General Grant intended, and President Lincoln concurred, was an all-fronts press. Attack everywhere. And by everywhere, he meant everywhere.

Not one, but two Union armies would attack Virginia. General Lee would be forced to engage one of those armies, and that's where Grant would make his headquarters. Just as it was the year before, Richmond wasn't the actual goal; but threatening Richmond would force the Confederates to engage. At the same time, another Union army would attack the Shenandoah Valley, to tie up the Confederate forces there. And finally, General William Tecumseh Sherman, now in command in the West, was to attack southeast from Chattanooga, and capture Atlanta.

The Confederate plan ... was to last long enough that the Northern public would become sick of the fighting. Davis had his hands full keeping an Army in the field at all, and had no resources to spare for offensive operations. His hopes for foreign intervention were now completely dashed. The only European country that still wanted to give the Confederacy official recognition was France, under Emperor Napoleon III, but without British co-operation he wasn't about to go it alone. And Queen Victoria wasn't about to give a slave power the time of day, much less official recognition.

But Davis' hope to tire the Northern public out wasn't a vain one. Three years of hard fighting had produced casualties in heretofore unimaginable numbers. Draft riots weren't all that uncommon. The war was expensive, taxes were high, and the national debt was rising to alarming levels. If they could just hold on until Election Day in November, it might well transpire that Mr. Lincoln would be hanging his shingle out once more in Springfield come the next March. Davis might actually have a prospect for a negotiated peace with a Democratic President.

But for that to happen ... his soldiers would have to hold the line for seven more months. They could do it. Maybe, they could do it. It'd be a near run thing ...

... but they'd have to keep the Yankees out. That was going to be a neat trick.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Many preachers have a go-to phrase that expresses their take on the ministry. You might even say it's their mission statement. For Saint Francis of Assisi, it was "Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary using words." A former pastor of mine liked the phrase, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The church I currently attend used the motto "Love Matters" when I first joined. They let you know what kind of person, what kind of congregation, they aspire to be.

Then, you have Fred Phelps. His motto ... well, it wasn't so much a motto as it was an answer to an interviewer's question. When asked about his approach, when asked what he felt about being so widely hated, he said, "Good. If I were not hated, what claim could I have on the ministry of the Gospel?"

That, I think, is the key thing you had to understand about Fred Phelps, and the key thing you had to understand about how to deal with him and his followers. He loved being hated. It was his measure of success. Back when supporting civil rights got you death threats, he was all about civil rights. If you ask how someone who was so right back in the '50s could be so wrong now, you ask the wrong question; the man simply enjoyed the opprobrium of his fellow citizen. Now, why he enjoyed it so is a fair question, but one that has now been rendered somewhat moot.

I never wasted a whole lot of time thinking about him, or his bloated distortion of Christianity. And I never wasted much time on hating him or his followers. Hate is the wrong response anyway, since that's what they crave. No, I'll tell you the proper way to treat them -- as they deserve.

You don't hate clowns. You point, and laugh at them.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXV: Of Fish And Men


One of Mankind's defining characteristics, I think, has been a state of constant rebellion. Call it rebellion against God if you like, or rebellion against Nature, but Man has never been one to accept the limitations placed upon him by evolution. In time immemorial, he rebelled against not being able to swim as well or as far as whales, so he built boats. He rebelled against not being able to fly like birds, so in time he built the hot-air balloon. And he rebelled against not being able to dive to the depths of the sea -- again, like whales -- and so he tried to build submersible craft ... with somewhat uneven results.

Moving across open water was one thing. Floating in the air yet another. But in both of these media, Man could count upon breathing the air around him. When he sought to go under the waves, though, he had to contend with the sad and sorry fact that no, he cannot breathe water. His Savior could walk upon it, but the record is silent on the breathing thing.

The first attempt to build a submersible water craft that we have reliable information about was in the 17th Century, when a Dutchman under contract to King James I of England had a go at it. Going up and down wasn't much of a problem, but lateral movement proved to be a real problem, one that the technology of the 17th Century was not up to solving. So, the matter was shelved for a while. In the late 18th Century, necessity drove an American, David Bushnell, to try to build a military submersible, called the Turtle. It ... didn't work very well. But it worked well enough for its time, and was the first submersible able to move under its own power while underwater. It failed utterly as a practical weapon, though.

Necessity is a harsh taskmaster, though, and the problem of breaking a blockade from within is one that would come up again and again in naval warfare. Which brings us to the story of one H. L. Hunley, who was practicing law in New Orleans when the balloon went up at Fort Sumter.

You may say that a New Orleans lawyer was no expert in submarines. Well, that's okay. No one else was, either. Hunley saw the need, and aimed to meet it.

His first attempt might have succeeded, and might not have. We'll never know: it had to be scuttled when Union forces took New Orleans in 1862. The second attempt ended with a prototype sinking in Mobile Bay. But as they often say, the third time's the charm, and Hunley financed that third attempt on his own. The result was a vessel that would bear its inventor's name: the H. L. Hunley.

Hunley would kill its first two crews. Building a submarine is one thing, operating it was a whole other ball game, and much like there were no veteran submarine engineers in 1863, there were also no veteran submarine sailors then, either. And nautical knowledge must be paid for in blood. All sailors know this. Mr. Hunley himself would be one of those casualties, in the second sinking of the Hunley.

The third crew was either luckier or more skilled, it's hard to say which. But they managed to practice the tricky maneuver of sticking a barbed explosive torpedo into an enemy ship, then backing up to fire the device, often enough that their commanders felt confident enough to risk a real target. And so it was, on February 17 of 1864, Lieutenant George Dixon took her out to engage the Union steam sloop USS Housatonic.

The record becomes somewhat confused at this point, for reasons we'll see shortly.

What is indisputably true is that an enormous explosion tore a hole in Housatonic's hull, sending it to the bottom of Charleston harbor in just five minutes. From this, we must conclude that Hunley's mission was a success.

Except ... that no one ever heard from Hunley, or Lieutenant Dixon, ever again.

A number of legends would attach themselves to the Hunley and her crew over the years. One of them was that Dixon, a Confederate Army officer at Shiloh, carried a gold dollar given him by his sweetheart. The dollar was struck by a bullet during the fight, probably saving Dixon's leg. He'd carry the coin ever after as a good-luck charm.

Time passes.

In time, nautical technology would become advanced enough that the wreck of the H. L. Hunley could, and would, be found. It would eventually become advanced enough that it could, and would, be raised. Analysis of the wreck would reveal that, most probably, the sub was too close to its target when the torpedo exploded, knocking the crew unconscious -- a fatal wound, for a hand-cranked sub with no on-board air supply. Another find would prove more surprising.

The legendary coin we talked about earlier? It's real.

While Hunley, man and ship, came to bad ends, they earned their place in the history books: for the first time ever, a submarine craft sank a surface craft. Hunley was the first. It would not be the last.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Election 2014: Texas Goober Primaries

Yes, it's that time again, when Texans go to the polls to begin the process to elect another Governor, though no one's entirely sure why. I mean, the Texas Governor is extraordinarily weak to the point that your average night-shift convenience store manager has more actual authority within his sphere of competence. Still, this is something we've become accustomed to doing, so here we are.

Pity it's such a dull year.

A few years back, we had a grand old time, with Kinky Friedman on the ballot, and Carole Keeton Strayhorn running as an independent candidate, apparently for the sheer joy of poking a sharp stick in Rick Perry's eye. Now, that was fine sport.

The Democratic primary features Wendy Davis, and a bunch of people who aren't Wendy Davis. The Republican primary features Greg Abbott, and a bunch of people who aren't Greg Abbott.

Mainly, Davis seems to be running against Ray Madrigal, who has been running for the Democratic nomination so long that he's forgotten why. But since hardly anyone has ever heard of Mr. Madrigal, his chances of success are somewhere on the same order of magnitude as the number of R's in "Fat Chance". So, it's safe to say that Wendy Davis will end up the Democratic nominee for Governor after the March 4 primary.

Abbott is running against a veritable Cast of Thousands for the Republican nomination. Said cast includes a right-wing radio host, a secessionist, and a former Univision host who's evidently forgotten that in Texas "G.O.P." stands for "I Hate Mexicans." So, Greg Abbott will probably wind up as the Republican nominee after the March 4 primary, provided that the secessionist doesn't pull enough support to force a runoff. That's a distinctly non-zero probability, given the amount of free-roaming crazy loose in the Republican primary electorate these days.

As to who will win, it's anyone's guess. Pollster says that Greg Abbott sits at 40%, Wendy Davis at 34%, with "We're having an election?" bringing up the rear at 26%.

Early voting starts on February 18, and runs through the 28th. The Primary Election is on Tuesday, March 4th. Vote early, and vote often!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ten Years!

Ten years ago, the rover Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars. It was expected to last at least 90 Martian days. At this point, it's lasted about forty times that long, and looks to be good for still more.

In the ten years Opportunity has been on station, we've gathered an immense amount of data, and made several amazing discoveries. Some of them have been confirmations of things long suspected, others took us by surprise. Ten years ago, it was still an open question whether or not water had ever flowed on Mars; now, it's proven fact. Ten years ago, it was highly speculative to say that Mars ever had the necessary conditions for life. Now, while it's not proven for sure yet, the facts are lining up in favor. Between them, Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity have been chipping away at the unknowns, revealing a world more complex that we'd imagined, with a richer past than we'd suspected.

In other recent news, we turn our eyes outward to the Asteroid Belt. European scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered something surprising about the dwarf planet Ceres. It seems that it periodically ejects plumes of water. While we'd suspected that Ceres was at least partially made of ice, this provides confirmation. Fortunately for us, the Dawn spacecraft is already on its way, having left Vesta a while back.

You know, this makes me feel sorry for poor New Horizons.

When New Horizons launched, it was a mission to fly by the farthest known planet, Pluto. While enroute, Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet. Which was still OK, since New Horizons would still be the first mission to a dwarf planet, right? Um, no. Turns out that while New Horizons will fly by Pluto in July of 2015, Dawn will reach Ceres in January.

Some people just can't buy a break.

Anyway, it's wonderful to know that we can still build things that last. Voyager, launched way back in 1977, still checks in regularly with Earth. Opportunity still soldiers on after ten years driving around in the Martian dust. And just next year, we'll get our first close-up views of not one, but two dwarf planets.

These are great days, ladies and gentlemen. And we've barely begun.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Fourteen for '14

Once again, we've broken the shrink-wrap on a brand-new calendar. We've seen off a grizzled old Father Time to a well-earned retirement, and welcomed in a smiling Baby New Year -- who, clearly, had no clue what he's in for. But he'll learn soon enough. Probably by, say, noon two days ago. And with that, we'll dive right into fourteen not-so-random thoughts for the New Year.

One: Holy God, Mr. Kim's a bad-un. We knew he was crazy. What we didn't necessarily know until now is that the guy has one hell of a mean streak. We probably should have gotten a clue last year when he had someone executed by mortar -- yes, machine-gunning wasn't enough, they used artillery -- for failing to observe a decent period of mourning for his late father. Then, he had a former girlfriend executed. And late last year, we found out that he had his uncle executed as well, for an alleged putsch-in-progress. Well, now details have leaked about the method. Kim Jong-Un had him thrown in a cage with 120 starving hounds. Along with five of his top aides. It's ... less than encouraging, knowing that someone with these kinds of anger issues even has a nuclear button to push. It's a little more reassuring to know that he's still got a ways to go before they can air-mail a batch of instant sunrise to anyone outside of North Korea.

Two: Nut-cases like Li'l Kim are why theater missile defense is still a damn good idea.

Three: I'm provisionally going to call Number Four from last year proven. The key wording here is, "for a sufficiently generous definition of Earth-like." The closest thing to an Earth-like planet found so far, GJ 1214b, is a lava planet with an atmosphere containing zinc sulfide, postassium chloride ... and water. Still, the fact that we can actually sense its atmospheric composition from 33 light years away -- thirty-three light years! -- is phenomenal. Stupefying, even. On the plus side, Kepler-62e and -62f are about the right size, and about the right distance from their star ... but they're about 1,200 light years away, so it'll be a while before we have enough data to be sure. Again, wording is important: by the terms I laid out last year, that's close enough.

Four: Now, to raise the stakes: We'll find a true Earth-twin, and soon. Right size, right place in its solar system, right atmospheric composition, and yes, oceans of liquid water. Our instruments get better every year. I don't seriously expect it to happen this year ... but I didn't expect Number Four from last year to be proven out so soon, either.

Five: Research at the University of Twente has revealed a new way to wind superconducting cables that will vastly extend their productive life within a fusion reactor. You can read the whole paper here. Solid information about other ongoing projects is still kind of hard to come by. Since the Polywell project is run by the Navy, and the Navy is playing its cards close to the vest, we won't know more until they decide to exercise a contract option to continue the research. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on. Fusion's been a tough nut to crack. But if we can figure it out, our energy problems are just about over.

Six: One researcher, Joe Eck, has produced a superconductor that keeps its superconducting properties up to a temperature of 38C, or about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Soon, they'll be pushing Tc up to values that will be useful for long-distance high-voltage power lines. Provided, that is, that the material is amenable to use in that capacity. The obvious advantages of superconducting power lines will lead someone to take up that challenge. As I've written before, we lose about two-thirds of the power we generate between the power plant and the end user. Meaning that, if we had superconducting power lines, at a stroke we'd triple the amount of deliverable electrical power. When I first started writing about this, it was a highly speculative prospect. Now, it's just a matter of time.

Seven: The three items above, together, lead me to the conclusion that while concern about our power future is still warranted, panic isn't. Relax, guys. We've got this.

Eight: VSS Enterprise, the successor to SpaceShip One that Burt Rutan is building for Richard Branson, made two powered flights last year, both going supersonic. On the second test flight in September, they tested the "feathering" that they will use for deceleration and descent from flights above 100km altitude. About 370 people have put a deposit down on their ticket, and 80,000 more are on the waiting list. No, I'm not one of them -- the quarter-million-dollar ticket price is too rich for my blood. Besides, the price is bound to come down sooner or later. The reason I'm writing all this is simple: after a few test flights to expand the flight envelope, I expect them to go for broke this year, all the way up to the Big Black. A steady stream of paying customers will follow, and the REAL Space Age will be well underway.

Nine: Meanwhile, Elon Musk looks on and says, "Suborbital? That's cute." DragonRider has passed its initial design reviews with NASA. SpaceX has announced a target price of $140 million, or $20 million per seat if all seven seats are used. So far, SpaceX hasn't announced any space tourist initiatives yet. Their primary customer for DragonRider is NASA, aiming to muscle Soyuz out of the crew rotation business. But the implication is obvious. If Branson proves that a market's there, someone will put two and two together, and pick up a phone to give Mr. Musk a call. It's only a matter of time, now.

Ten: The first astronaut of NASA's Group 20, Michael Hopkins, is aboard the International Space Station, and will be until March 2014. I find it remarkable that it only took two years after completion of training for the first member of Group 20 to get a flight. Then again, it has been four years since selection... Amazingly enough, there was a selection for Group 21, and it completely escaped my notice. The eight astronaut candidates selected in June will join the 47 astronauts currently on the active list. It looks like they're on a four-year rotation now, so we should look for Group 22 to be chosen in June 2017.

Eleven: Total radio silence so far on Johan Bruyneel's arbitration hearing, in the wake of last year's Armstrong scandal. Although, really, it's not fair to call it the Armstrong scandal, since Lance wasn't doing anything anyone else wasn't already doing. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way by (a) turning all the dials up to 11, and (b) being a total jerk-ass about it. Everybody and his dog was cheating during those years. Mind you, he richly deserved to lose those titles, and no one else really deserved to pick them up. Still, once the decision is released, I expect the other shoe to drop. We know who, what, when, where, and why; we do not know how. How was he able to avoid the testing protocols so long and so well? And how far did the corruption go? We'll probably learn more in the year to come.

Twelve: It'll be interesting to see how well Lolo Jones does in bobsled. Bobsled and luge are my two favorite winter sports. But as you might have noticed, I have a thing for speed, and these are just about the two fastest muscle-powered sports there are.

Thirteen: Another season, another 8-8 finish for the Cowboys. I can haz new GM? Yeah, like Jerry's gonna fire himself. Maybe next year ... but probably not.

Fourteen: But wait! The primaries are coming up for the 2014 Texas Gubernatorial election! So far, the only entrants I've heard of are Wendy Davis on the Democratic side, and Greg Abbott for the Republicans. Presumably, there's going to be some competition, but my gut feeling right now is that it'll be Abbot vs. Davis in November. I'll dig into more detail on that in coming weeks, but this could be a fun one. Also -- looks like Governor Perry's ginning up for another run at the Republican nomination in 2016. No, don't laugh. His performance last time was an aberration. If he manages to show up properly prepped and briefed, he could spring an unpleasant surprise on his competitors.

And that's it for now. Happy New Year, all! And thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

WE THREE CLODS (to the tune of "We Three Kings")

We three clods from Omaha are
Spending Christmas Eve in a car
Driving, drinking, glasses clinking --
Who needs a lousy bar?

Oh, oh ...
Drink to Charlie, drink to Paul
Drink to friends we can't recall
Swerving, speeding,
Signs unheeding --
Drink to anything at all.

We three clods are feeling no pain
Drunk as skunks with booze on the brain
Senses losing, 'till we're cruising
Into a wrong-way lane.

Oh, oh ...
Drink to Melvin, drink to Fred
Drink to those two trucks ahead
Headlights flashing
Screeching, crashing --
Drink 'till they pronounce us dead.

(This public service announcement originally brought to you by Mad Magazine, issue unknown. Don't drink and drive. It generally doesn't end well.)

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXIV: The Door


"The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on." -- General Ulysses S. Grant

It's very odd that Grant does not mention anything here about supply. From his actions, and from his memoirs, it's clear that supplies were always paramount in his thinking. He might not have read Wellington's memoirs himself, but clearly he was of the same school: if he had food and ammunition, he had soldiers; and if he had soldiers he could beat the enemy.

Which brings us back to Chattanooga, and the Union army trapped therein by a surrounding force of Confederates under Braxton Bragg. The encircled Union commander, General Thomas, didn't have enough supplies to last indefinitely. What he did have was assurance that Grant was on the way. For the moment, that was enough. Thomas and his army would hold out until relief arrived.

Grant's first order of business was to open what he called a "Cracker Line", to get some supplies in to Chattanooga. He began these operations in late October. Bragg had no idea what Grant was up to, but he did notice a Union force under Hooker crossing the river at Bridgeport, and ordered Longstreet to shore up his flank. But no flanking attack was called for. Instead, a Union force was floated unnoticed past Lookout Mountain -- spectacularly failing to live up to its name in this case -- to seize Brown's Ferry, from which Grant could resupply Thomas with ease.

This presented Bragg with a bit of a problem. Sure, he was still surrounding Chattanooga, in theory. In practice, the siege was already broken, and the strategic position had changed radically. Looking over all his options, the only one that didn't entail either humiliating retreat or suicidal attack was a movement around Grant's left flank. The problem with that option, though, was a Union corps under General Burnside at Knoxville. But as he was drawing up plans to attack Burnside, decisions from Richmond forced him to change his plans. Longstreet was being sent back to Virginia. It was decided that he'd attack Burnside along the way.

In the meantime, Grant wasn't idle. It wasn't his style to sit around and let the opposing commander come to him. His plan was the same as it always had been. The first two parts, finding them and getting there, had already been done. All that was left was striking them hard. His fresh troops, under Hooker and Sherman, would hit the Rebels from their left and right, respectively, while Thomas' men would come out of their defensive works at Chattanooga and hit the center.

Lookout Mountain again failed to live up to its billing. It's actually a fairly lousy defensive position. It's easily flanked, and if the attacker has decent artillery, they can make life miserable for the defenders. Once the Union got around the base of the mountain, the Confederate position was no longer tenable, and they were forced to withdraw.

This left Bragg with the bulk of his forces arrayed on Missionary Ridge, south of Chattanooga. Ordinarily, this would still be a fairly good defensive position. You'd think it would be a replay of Gettysburg, with the Confederates holding the high ground ... except for one key difference. Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg was shaped like a fish-hook, giving the defender a concave front with interior lines of communication. Missionary Ridge is line-straight. If anyone manages to turn the flank, the position folds up like a cheap suit.

That's more or less what happens.

Hooker was already halfway there, having run the Confederates off of Lookout Mountain. Once he got guns set up on the slopes, his gunners had a clean line of fire onto the Confederate left flank. In the meantime, Thomas was attacking from the front, and Sherman from the right.

Grant didn't actually expect the frontal assault to actually work. His orders were for them to advance only as far as the rifle pits. But a funny thing happened...

One of Thomas' brigade commanders, Philip Sheridan, raised a flask in a toast to the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. "Here's at you," he toasted. More or less at that point, a Confederate shell landed nearby, splattering him with dirt. "That was ungenerous," he said. "I'll have your guns for that!"

His soldiers took that as their cue to attack, with their goal being the Confederate guns at the top of the ridge, not the rifle pits at the base. When General Thomas saw this happening, he ordered a general attack, so that they wouldn't go unsupported.

It had no business working. It shouldn't have worked. Sheridan should have died right there, or been wounded, like every brigade commander at Pickett's Charge. Of course, that third day, everyone on the top of that ridge was expecting a charge. Here, on this day, just about no one was expecting them to come up the hill.

With both flanks threatened, and the center giving way, Bragg had no choice but to withdraw.

This was just about the last major action, east or west, for 1863. The respective armies began to go into winter quarters shortly thereafter. But with Chattanooga lost, and a strong Union force in possession, the door to the Deep South had been kicked off its hinges.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LXIV

I'm a technology professional, so I really should never be surprised about how far technology has advanced. Really, I shouldn't. But every once in a while, I compare what we have now against what we thought was possible when I was young, and even though that's been less than thirty years ...

Case in point. The first computer I owned had 512K of RAM. Now, you can buy over 4,000 times the memory in a blister pack at the Target checkout line. And the first digital camera I ever saw was a huge, clunky, fragile thing. Now ... GoPro makes an amazingly small, amazingly rugged camera that not only can go anywhere, it has.

It's been on land:



And space.

It's hard for me to say which one's more thrilling: the backflip over a canyon on a bike, recording whale songs, jumping off a cliff in a flying squirrel suit, or stepping into the void 128,000 feet above New Mexico.

I don't have the skill to do any of these. But, thanks to modern technology, I can see what it looks like to have done it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Big Data For Fun And Profit

I have seen the future, and it's pretty weird.

Several entities out there have set about ... well, just sitting and listening. And collating what they hear, trying to find patterns. Some we know about, others we don't. Whether we like it or not, the era of Big Data is upon us. No one, least of all those who are trying to tap into it, know exactly what that means yet.

What can you discover, if you have a big enough data set? What kinds of answers can you tease out of it?

That's part of the philosophy behind Wolfram Alpha, which I've written about before. Alpha is kind of like Google, but more focused. Let's say you wanted to know how many people lived on Earth in 1863. You can search Google for resources that will tell you about historical planetary population. Or you can go to Alpha, type "world population in 1863", and it'll straight up tell you that in 1863, the world's population was 1.26 billion people. If you're curious, you can revise your query to "India population 2013", and you're treated to the notion that the equivalent of the entire human race circa 1863 lives in today's India. I'm ... not entirely sure what to make of that. But it's definitely food for thought.

The point is, between them Google and Wolfram have harnessed an immense amount of publicly-available data, made it massively interconnected, and set it loose on the public at large. On the whole, this is a good thing. Back when I was in school, one of the first things they taught us was how to use the library's card catalog. You could find a lot of stuff in that card catalog. Well, nowadays, just about everyone carries a card catalog that indexes almost the entirety of human knowledge in their pocket. And with just a little more effort, they can unleash an agent who will go search that catalog, giving them just the information they're looking for. You can search for any kind of data: population, financial, historical, whatever.

And then, there's Akinator.

Akinator's conceit is that a genie is playing guessing games with you: you think of a character, and Akinator will ask questions until he guesses who you're thinking about. I suspect -- but I don't know for sure, since they're not really telling -- that it's an enormous database, one that grows and learns from each of its defeats. It's Big Data applied to amusement, as opposed to research. Yes, you can stump Akinator, but you really have to work at it. At least it's honest. Well-known characters and historical personages, he'll guess in fairly short order; more obscure references may take time to narrow down. Within another year, if they're still running by then, it may be nigh-impossible to put one over on the old boy.

Finally, you have the prediction markets, which are another expression of Big Data ... sort of. By allowing people to collaborate anonymously, they allow a real-time expression of the Wisdom of Crowds principle. This is an invaluable resource for ... well, just about all of us. In 2008 and 2012, no one who was regularly reading Intrade was surprised by the election outcome. Which is unfortunate, because government busybodies shut Intrade down earlier this year. Maybe they'll be back. I sure hope so. In the meantime, there are other prediction markets out there. I'm going to be giving the Iowa Electronic Markets a workout in next year's Congressional races, and I'll let you know how it turns out.

Lastly ... what must it be like, to grow up in this world? Our kids have never really known a world where everything wasn't indexed. I've touched on this topic before, and don't really have anything new to add. Whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not, we are now raising the first generation of cyborgs. They do not understand what it's like to be involuntarily lost. They do not understand what we mean by "privacy." And they do not understand what it's like not to have information at their fingertips. And increasingly, it's going to be their world.

And we're going to have to adapt to living in it.

But you know what? We will. That's what we do. We shape our tools, then our tools shape us, in an endless recursion. The future always looks weird to those who first see it.

But, eventually, we all get used to it.