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Posts Tagged ‘machines

“The information revolution came without an instruction manual”*…

 

Machines

In my graduate seminar we’ve recently been thinking a bit about machines. Given that our focus has been on the 19th Century, attention has been directed toward ergodic machines (from the root ergon meaning work). Ergodic machines are machines that run on heat and energy. Such machines are essentially mechanical in nature. They deal with basic physical mechanics like levers and pulleys, and questions of mass, weight, and counter-balance. Ergodic machines adhere to the laws of motion and inertia, the conservation of energy, and the laws of thermodynamics governing heat, pressure, and energy…

Still, ergodic machines do not account for all machines. Informatic machines, those devices dominating contemporary life, have in many ways taken over from their 19th-century counterparts. Informatic machines have physical bodies, of course, and they frequently require electricity or other forms of power to operate. However the essence of the informatic machine is not found in motion, unrest, heat, or energy. The essence of the informatic machine is found in form, not energy or presence. From the perspective of philosophy, computers are therefore quite classical, even conservative. They follow that most basic law of Western idealism, that the formal determines the physical

The anti-computer has yet to be invented. But traces of it are found everywhere. Even Bitcoin, that most miserable invention, relies on an anti-computational infrastructure. In order to mine coins, one must expend energy. Hence these twenty-first-century machines are yoked to a nineteenth-century mandate: burn fuel to release value. Bitcoin may run on a computer but it is anti-computational at heart. Bitcoin only works because it is grounded in an anti-computer (energy). It is thus a digital machine made subsidiary to an analog foundation, a twenty-first-century future tied to a nineteenth-century past.

The encryption algorithms at the heart of Bitcoin are anti-computational as well. Cryptography deploys form as a weapon against form. Such is the magic of encryption. Encryption is a kind of structure that makes life difficult for other competing structures. Encryption does not promote frictionlessness, on the contrary it produces full and complete friction at all levels. Not the quotidian friction of everyday life, but a radical friction frustrating all expression. What used to be a marginal activity practiced by hackers — cracking password hashes — is now the basis of an entire infrastructure. Earn a buck by cracking hashes using “brute force.” Turn your computer into an anti-computer.

A friend of Marshall McLuhan’s, Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham University, observed that “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us” (though the quote is often attributed to McLuhan, who may in fact have inspired it).   Alexander R. Galloway ponders the tools that dominate our lives these days: “Anti-Computer.”

* “The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual”  — Pico Iyer

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As we muse on machines, we might spare a thought for James Clerk Maxwell; he died on this date in 1879.  a mathematician and and physicist, his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light– that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation— is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton), and laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the millennium poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.

225px-James_Clerk_Maxwell source

 

Written by LW

November 5, 2018 at 2:01 am

“In a properly automated and educated world, then, machines may prove to be the true humanizing influence”*…

 

When George Jakob Hunzinger patented his first piece of furniture in December of 1860, the United States was on the brink of a devastating Civil War. Amid the growing pressures of industrialization, the country was split between those in favor of an old-fashioned business model—dependent on slavery—and those betting on a more diversified, innovative economy. At the time, the American way of life as we know it today was hardly recognizable: Gas-powered automobiles hadn’t made their debut; electric lighting was decades away; skyscrapers did not yet exist. Yet from Hunzinger’s vantage point as a successful immigrant in New York City, possibly the most forward-thinking place on Earth, he imagined a future where humans lived among machines, and even the most humble pieces of furniture would be mechanically enhanced.

Beginning with his first patent for an extendable table whose leaves were hidden underneath when not in use, Hunzinger knew the seamless integration of technology and furniture could be a selling point. Though the Industrial Revolution had already transformed American production, the final decades of the 19th century would thrust the country into modernity, with Hunzinger’s inventions helping to pave the way…

More at: “Furniture of the Future: Victorian New York’s Most Visionary Designer Loved His Machines.

* “In a properly automated and educated world, then, machines may prove to be the true humanizing influence. It may be that machines will do the work that makes life possible and that human beings will do all the other things that make life pleasant and worthwhile ”
― Isaac Asimov, Robot Visions

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As we settle in, we might think back to one of the driving forces that created the America in which many of us live: on this date in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, landmark legislation that funded a 40,000-mile system of interstate roads that ultimately reached every American city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, almost 90% of the interstate system crosses rural areas, putting most citizens and businesses within driving distance of one another. Although Eisenhower’s rationale was martial (creating a road system on which convoys could travel more easily), the rewards were largely civilian. From the growth of trucking to the rise of suburbs, the interstate highway system re-shaped American landscapes and lives.

 source

 

Written by LW

June 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Black holes are the seductive dragons of the universe”*…

 

Just when the confirmation of gravity waves seemed conclusively to affirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity…

If you thought regular black holes were about as weird and mysterious as space gets, think again, because for the first time, physicists have successfully simulated what would happen to black holes in a five-dimensional world, and the way they behave could threaten our fundamental understanding of how the Universe works.

The simulation has suggested that if our Universe is made up of five or more dimensions – something that scientists have struggled to confirm or disprove – Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the foundation of modern physics, would be wrong. In other words, five-dimensional black holes would contain gravity so intense, the laws of physics as we know them would fall apart…

“If naked singularities exist, general relativity breaks down,” said one of the team, Saran Tunyasuvunakool. “And if general relativity breaks down, it would throw everything upside down, because it would no longer have any predictive power – it could no longer be considered as a standalone theory to explain the Universe.”

If our Universe only has four dimensions, everything is cool, and ring-shaped black holes and naked singularity are not a thing. But physicists have proposed that our Universe could be made up of as many as 11 dimensions. The problem is that because humans can only perceive three, the only way we can possibly confirm the existence of more dimensions is through high-energy experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider…

More at “A five-dimensional black hole could ‘break’ general relativity, say physicists.”

 * Robert Coover, A Child Again

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As we marvel at models, we might send very carefully-crafted birthday greetings to Jacques de Vaucanson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A mechanical genius, de Vaucanson invented a number of machine tools still in use (e.g., the slide rest lathe) and created the first automated loom (the inspiration for Jacquard).  But he is better remembered as the creator of extraordinary automata.  Among his most famous creations:  The Flute Player (with hands gloved in skin) and The Tambourine Player, life-sized mechanical figures that played their instruments impressively.  But his masterpiece was The Digesting Duck; remarkably complex (it had 400 moving parts in each wing alone), it could flap its wings, drink water, eat grain– and defecate.

Sans…le canard de Vaucanson vous n’auriez rien qui fit ressouvenir de la gloire de la France.  (Without…the duck of Vaucanson, you will have nothing to remind you of the glory of France)

– Voltaire

 source

Written by LW

February 24, 2016 at 1:01 am

I’ll take the low road…

source: Argonne National Laboratory

Cartoonist Rube Goldberg sketched ironic paeans to parsimony– cartoons depicting the simplest of things being done in the most elaborate and complicated of ways.  His whimsy inspired Purdue University to hold an annual Rube Goldberg Contest, in which teams of college students from around the country compete “to design a machine that uses the most complex process to complete a simple task – put a stamp on an envelope, screw in a light bulb, make a cup of coffee – in 20 or more steps.”

New Scientist reports on this year’s meet:

Who ever said a machine should be efficient? The device in this video was deliberately over-engineered to water a plant in 244 steps, while illustrating a brief history of life and the universe in the meantime. Created by students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, it sets a new world record for the most complex Rube Goldberg machine – a contraption designed to complete a simple task through a series of chain reactions.

The machine was unveiled in March at the National Rube Goldberg Machine Championships held at Purdue University. The competition, first held in 1949, challenges competitors to accomplish a simple task in under 2 minutes, using at least 20 steps.

Although this machine used the greatest number of steps, it encountered some problems during the contest so was disqualified. But the team tried it again afterwards and it worked – too late to compete in the championships but still valid as a world record entry. They should find out this week if Guinness World Records accepts their record-breaking feat.

For more Rube Goldberg machines, check out our previous coverage of the championships, watch this cool music video by OK Go or see how an elaborate Japanese device could fix you a noodle dinner.

As we savor the sheer silliness of it all, we might recall that The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was founded during the Revolutionary War, was chartered on this date in 1780.

Established by by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who contributed prominently to the establishment of the new nation, its government, and its Constitution, the Academy’s purpose was (in the words of the Charter) “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

Over the years, just about everyone a reader may have encountered in a U.S. History text has been a member: The original incorporators were later joined by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Bulfinch, Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, and others. During the 19th century, the elected membership included Daniel Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John J. Audubon, Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Alexander Graham Bell.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, membership in the Academy continued to grow as other noted scholars, scientists, and statesmen were elected– including A. A. Michelson, Percival Lowell, Alexander Agassiz and, later, Charles Steinmetz, Charles Evans Hughes, Samuel Eliot Morison, Albert Einstein, Henry Lee Higginson, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Henry Cabot Lodge.  (Current members are listed here.)

Today the Academy is (in its self-explanation) “an international learned society with a dual function: to elect to membership men and women of exceptional achievement, drawn from science, scholarship, business, public affairs, and the arts, and to conduct a varied program of projects and studies responsive to the needs and problems of society.”

The Minerva Seal (source)

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