Posts Tagged ‘Computers’

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.

Bristol’s Real Steampunk Car: The 1875 Grenville Steam Carriage

May 26, 2017

And now, a bit of fun before I return to hammering the Theresa May and the Tories for their seven years of misgovernment, malice, and general misery.

Steampunk is the subspecies of Science Fiction, which wonders what would have happened if the Victorians had invented computers, flying machines, space travel and so on. One of the founding texts of the genre is William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (London: Victor Gollancz 1990), which imagines what Britain might have looked like if Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, had actually been built and use by the British government. It’s set in an alternative history in which the Duke of Wellington and the Tory government of 1829 have been overthrown by a party of Industrial Radicals, led by Lord Byron. Instead of government by the landed aristocracy, the country is instead ruled by a scientific elite. Foremost of these is Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme for the machine. Apart from the Difference Engine itself, which is used by various government departments to solve not only statistical and technical problems, but which also records images and information like a modern computer, the streets are packed with steam carriages, and the British army also uses steam driven armoured cars to carry troops to suppress industrial unrest.

In fact, as I’ve blogged about previously, a number of steam carriages and cars were built throughout the 19th century before the emergence of the internal combustion engine and the modern car.

R.N. Grenville in the steam carriage with his family and servants outside Butleigh Court c. 1895.

One of these vehicles, the Grenville Steam Carriage, was designed in 1875 by Robert Neville Grenville of Glastonbury in Somerset. He was aided by George Churchward, who later became the chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway. After taking part in the 1946 London Jubilee Cavalcade in Regent’s Park, it was presented the following year to the City Museum in Bristol by Grenville’s nephew, Captain P.L. Neville. Over twenty years later the Museum’s Technology Conservator, F.J. Lester, carried out an overhaul of the vehicle with the ship repairers, Messrs Jefferies Ltd. of Avonmouth. It took part in the Lord Mayor’s Jubilee Procession in Bristol in 1977, before being displayed in the Industrial Museum in Bristol.

The City Museum published a leaflet about the vehicle, written by the director of the Industrial Museum, Andy King, the Curator of Technology, P. Elkin, and with a drawing of the carriage by F.J. Lester.

The leaflet states that Grenville and Churchward had been engineering pupils together at the workshops of the South Devon Railway in Newton Abbott, and remained friends throughout their lives. Most of the carriage was probably built at Grenville’s home in Butleigh Court in Glastonbury, where he had an extensive workshop. Some parts of it, such as the wheels, may have been made under Churchward’s supervision at the G.W.R.’s workshops in Swindon. Although the vehicle was designed in 1875, it was actually built over a period of 15 years, as components were adapted and altered according to a lengthy process of trial and error.

The carriage itself was more similar to the railway engines of the time than horse-drawn carriages. The boiler, engine, shaft-bearings, rear spring brackets and front suspension were supported by a frame of 4″ x 2″ girders. It had three wheels, composed of sixteen section of teak banded with an iron tyre. This was the same as the ‘Mansell’ wheel used in railway carriages from 1860 to 1910.

It possessed the same type of vertical boiler used in the steam fire engines of the time. It was believed that this was made by one of the companies that made them, Shand Mason & Co. The steam carriage also had one of these boilers after it was renovated. The boiler was supplied with water from a tank slung underneath the carriage by an injector.

The carriage was originally powered by a single cylinder engine mounted on the boiler. This was later replaced by a twin-cylinder engine.

Photo from The Garage & Motor Agent showing the steam carriage and an 1898 Benz in the 1946 Jubilee Cavalcade of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

The carriage was operated by a crew of three – the driver, brakeman and a fireman, and there were also seats for four passengers. The driver steered the vehicle using a tiller system, as on ships; he also controlled the throttle, cut off levers and a whistle, which he worked with a pedal. The law stipulated that vehicles like the steam carriage had to carry a brakeman, who sat on the right-hand side of the driver and controlled the brakes, which were wooden blocks. The fireman also had his own small seat in the engine compartment.

The car consumed five gallons of water and 6 pounds of coal per mile, and on the flat could reach the astonishing speed of just under 20 miles an hour on the flat.

Grenville probably lost interest in the steam carriage just to its poor performance. It appeared at the same time as more efficient steam cars were being built in America, and the modern cars, driven by petrol and the internal combustion engine also appeared.

Before it was acquired by the City Museum, the carriage was used from 1898 to 1902 as a stationery engine to drive a cider mill at Butleigh Court. It was lent after Grenville’s death in 1936 to John Allen & Sons of Cowley in Oxfordshire, who rebuilt it, replacing the boiler and rear axle.

Next week on Radio 4 there’s a programme discussing the lack of people studying engineering, and asking what could be done to inspire more students to take up the subject.

I wondered if part of the solution might be to harness the immense interest the public has in cars, motorbikes and other motor vehicles as well as steam punk enthusiasts. Many proud owners of cars and bikes spend hours caring for and repairing their vehicles as a hobby, quite apart on the volunteers who give their labour and support to organisations like the former Industrial Museum helping to restore historic vehicles and other machines. There’s quite a large community of people, who design and make their own steampunk SF costumes and machines. And some of them have already built their alternative steam punk cars as a hobby. It might be possible to encourage more budding engineers and inventors of the future by showing some of the amazing machines built by the Victorians, which have formed the basis for this genre of Science Fiction and the worlds of wonder its writers have imagined.

The Industrial Museum was closed long ago, and its site is now that of Bristol’s M Shed, which has many of the old exhibits from its predecessor. I don’t know if the Grenville Steam Carriage is one of them, but it may well be, either on display or in storage.

Vox Political: Stripped of Soundbites, May Has Nothing to Say

May 2, 2017

Theresa May receiving her programming at Tory Central Office.

Mike also put up a piece on Sunday after May’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show, pointing out how abysmal she was. Far from being an articulate, cogent speaker, May can only talk in specially prepared soundbites. Without them, she has absolutely nothing to say.

Before he began the interview, Marr asked her not speak in soundbites. She couldn’t. The first thing she said when she opened her mouth was the prepared line that this was the most important election the country had faced in her lifetime. Which is a line that has been repeated ad nauseam. She then went on to repeat the line about being ‘strong and stable’.

After more of this nonsense, Marr commented that people can listen to these statements ‘and think they’re a bit robotic’.

May’s response to that: a pause, then back to strong and stable leadership. Mike remarked to me later over the phone that she was so robotic, people were suggesting that she should line up for the Turing test. You know, the one which tests AIs to see if they can pass for human. By this evidence, May would probably fail.

Without her make-up backstage at the BBC

Mike also reblogs some of the comments about her performance, such as Martin Odoni’s remark that she couldn’t even handle Marr’s gentle guidance not to speak in soundbites. Within 30 seconds, she was on autopilot.

Indeed.

More seriously, May repeated the lie about people not going to food banks because they’re starving. Marr made the simple statement that it must be wrong for nurses to have to go to food banks.

May replied that there are many complex reasons why people go to food banks.

No, there’s only one: they don’t have any food because they are too poor to buy it.

But the Tories have been denying this obvious fact ever since food banks became an independent indicator outside their control of the amount of real, grinding poverty in Britain. And outside them, the UN estimates 8 million Brits live in ‘food insecure’ households. That means that they literally don’t know when their next meal is.

Another commenter, Dylan’s World, said it all:

“Couldn’t answer the question about food banks. A party of the rich, for the rich. Disgusting.”

Despite the Jokes, HIGNFY Is Fake News

April 20, 2017

Okay, the BBC have started running trailers for the new series of Have I Got News For You that’s due to begin on Friday. The trailer jokes about how the programme won’t be dominated by fake news, before going into a series of clips in which the panellists are dubbed over by a voice with a Russian accent, going on about how wonderful Putin’s Russia is.

Ho ho! We all know how corrupt the Russian media is, ever since the days of the Soviet Union, if not the Tsar. So all good fun and fair comment, eh?

Well, no. I stopped watching the show last year, because I got sick and tired of the way it retailed fake news, cleverly masked as fair comment on the news stories of the week, and wrote a post about it. Jokes like that are dangerous, because they promote a very false image of what Russia is doing in Ukraine, as well as ramping up international tensions, which could all too easily lead to war. Remember, last year a NATO general wrote a whole book about how, by next month, we would be at war with Russia. Considering the stupid actions of Trump and the American military-industrial complex and its poodles in the media, I don’t know if that was a genuine prediction or a prepared script that has been laid down for NATO to follow.

But let’s take the connection between Russia and ‘fake news’. This has been heavily promoted by the Democrats to excuse their defeat in the American presidential elections. They lost, not because they had no policies that would really benefit the poor, not because Hillary Clinton is a corporatist hawk, who has been paid obscene amounts by the Wall Street banks for making sure they can get away with wrecking the economy and impoverishing the country’s working people. Or the way she sneered at implementing single-payer healthcare, and has worked for companies like Wallmart, which stamped on trade unions. No! It was all because the Russians hacked into the Democrats’ computer and handed all the incriminating evidence of their crooked deals with industry and to rig the nominations to keep Bernie Sanders out, and then gave it to WikiLeaks. Except that there’s no evidence of this, and WikiLeaks itself has denied this, saying instead that they were given the material in a Chicago park by a Democratic insider, who was annoyed at the way the party was being run.

And there’s more, much more. Since then the Democrats and their corporate shills, like Rachel Maddow, have been not only banging on about this, but also about how they supposedly hacked into Trump, and have some kind of hold over him, blackmailing him to support their interests. There’s no evidence for that, but nevertheless, that’s what’s being sold the American public. There are two videos from the Jimmy Dore show where he reports on the finding by an American media monitoring organisation that stories about Russian hacking now comprise over 50 per cent of the stories covered by Maddow on her show. Despite the fact that figures from the FBI and CIA have said that it’s all rubbish.

Dore points out how McCarthyite this all is, and how it is dangerously ratcheting up tensions with Putin in a new ‘Red Scare’.

Added to this already volatile situation is the current war in Ukraine. If you believe the media, including Private Eye, Putin doing the same thing as Hitler did to Czechoslovakia. He using the supposed persecution of his people in that country to invade and overthrow its democratically elected government and annex the entire nation.

Except that Putin isn’t. He is in Ukraine to protect the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainian population, who are genuinely being persecuted by the Ukrainian government. However, Crimea was never historically part of Ukraine, is overwhelmingly Russian, and was only given to Ukraine in 1950 or so. And its people voted, perfectly constitutionally, to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

As for the current Ukrainian government, they are anything but nice, western-style democrats. The Orange Revolution was not a spontaneous revolution at all, but a carefully funded astroturf coup staged by George Soros and the National Endowment for Democracy, which is the American government’s quango in charge of fomenting coups against governments the American state doesn’t like. Which means, in practice, those countries that try to stop American corporations exploiting them and treating their people as slaves.

The Ukrainian government also contains genuine Nazis from the Pravy – ‘Right’ – Sektor. These organisations dress in the costume and use the regalia – the flags, signs and insignia – of the Ukrainian SS auxiliaries during the Second World War. These organisations, and the leaders they revere, where responsible for some of the pogroms and actively aided the Holocaust during the Nazi invasion. And they are still bitterly anti-Semitic today.

But from Reagan onwards, the American government has supported elements of the Ukrainian far right, and its leaders, like Vladimir Stetso, as freedom fighters.

None of this is being reported in Private Eye, or mentioned on the BBC, not even on Have I Got News For You. Indeed, Private Eye, in their ‘Letter from Ukraine’, actively retailed the narrative that democratic Ukraine is under attack from Putin’s Russia. This is all to serve British, and indeed, western, corporate and military interests.

And so Have I Got News For You, and its hosts, are actively feeding us fake news, all the while pretending to be acting as a kind of humorous check, holding politicians accountable through satire and humour. But there are limits to the joking, beyond which they clearly don’t want to go. And the jolly irreverence then becomes actively dangerous, as it adds an entirely spurious verisimilitude to the lies they are telling about Russia, Ukraine and the former eastern bloc.

I had enough of this a couple of years ago, and have stopped watching it. I am not saying it doesn’t do some good, and that the team and panellists don’t genuinely hold some politicos to account. I’m just saying that it’s also peddling fake news, and that, if you watch it, you need to be very careful about what Hislop, Merton and the guest presenter for that week say.

Counterpunch on the Threat of Military Policing in America by 2030

February 19, 2017

Last week there was a chilling piece in Counterpunch by John Whitehead. The left-wing American magazine, the Intercept, had obtained a five minute promotional video by the Pentagon. This forecast that by 2030 conditions in American cities will have decayed to the point where the army is being sent in as a police force.
He writes

The U.S. military plans to take over America by 2030.

No, this is not another conspiracy theory. Although it easily could be.

Nor is it a Hollywood political thriller in the vein of John Frankenheimer’s 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May about a military coup d’etat.

Although it certainly has all the makings of a good thriller.

No, this is the real deal, coming at us straight from the horse’s mouth.

According to “Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity,” a Pentagon training video created by the Army for U.S. Special Operations Command, the U.S. military plans to use armed forces to solve future domestic political and social problems.

What they’re really talking about is martial law, packaged as a well-meaning and overriding concern for the nation’s security.

The chilling five-minute training video, obtained by The Intercept through a FOIA request and made available online, paints an ominous picture of the future—a future the military is preparing for—bedeviled by “criminal networks,” “substandard infrastructure,” “religious and ethnic tensions,” “impoverishment, slums,” “open landfills, over-burdened sewers,” a “growing mass of unemployed,” and an urban landscape in which the prosperous economic elite must be protected from the impoverishment of the have nots.

He then makes connections between the demands by the commentary in the Pentagon’s video to ‘drain the swamp’, with the same slogan used by Donald Trump. He also points out that Americans have become used to the all-powerful surveillance state, which can pinpoint your location and gain information through mobile phones and personal computers.

For further information, see: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/02/16/coming-soon-to-a-city-near-you-military-policing/

Whitehead states that it’s like the ’60s political thriller, ‘Seven Days in May’. It’s actually far closer to the urban dystopias of Cyberpunk and similar SF, like Blade Runner, Elysium, James Cameron’s Strange Days and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and its sequel, Escape from LA. This is the America the Pentagon believes will arise within the next fifteen years. Back in the 1990s there was a programme on one of the Beeb’s documentary slots arguing that the cyberpunk future that had been forecast would arise from Thatcherism hadn’t emerged, and that thanks to free market economics, countries all round the world were actually prospering. This is just right-wing biased reporting and wishful thinking. It’s becoming painfully evident that neoliberalism is destroying countries around the world, and immiserating their citizens in even more grinding poverty. But it makes massive profits for big business, so they and their shills in the media will keep that very carefully covered up. The predictions were true. They just go their timing wrong.

There’s another point to be made here as well about the brutal methods America has used around the world to enforce its domination. These have included organising Fascist coups and right-wing military dictators. Critics of this policy that have argued that in addition to the harm done to the countries that have been the victims of these policies, there is the added danger that inevitably the repressive measures empires use to oppress the indigenous peoples of their colonies return to be used on the people of the imperial homeland itself. And this will be the case in America.

Unless neoliberalism is comprehensively scrapped, wealth is redistributed and the widening gap between the poor and the rich is closed.

Here’s the opening titles from Escape from New York, to show the kind of America such SF depicts, and which may arise in the next decades unless we do something to stop it.

A Treasury of Ancient Mathematical Texts

February 4, 2017

Henrietta Midonick, The Treasure of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1968)

ancient-mathematics-cover

I realise that the history of mathematics is an arcane subject, that few people will have much interest in, having struggled enough with the subject at school. But with Black History Month, there is immense interest amongst scholars of Black and Asian history about restoring Black and Asian scientists and mathematicians to their rightful place in history.

I picked up this book in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham about a year or so ago. It’s a collection of ancient and medieval mathematical texts from Ancient Egypt, Babylon, China, India, Islam, the Jews and, of course, the ancient Greeks. The blurb for it runs

Mathematics is the only true international language. men can communicate more directly, precisely and logically in pure mathematics than in any other tongue. Moreover we have much to learn from the achievements of past civilizations in this field: even modern computers have not fathomed all the intricacies of Stonehenge. In this fascinating collection of original sources (many of them published in a popular edition for the first time) Henrietta Midonick shows individual mathematicians grappling with varied problems – some practical, such as architecture, money valuation, mechanics, astronomy and calendar calculation; others verging on philosophy, such as the existence of zero and the concept of infinity. Her arrangement also demonstrates the growth of key ideas in geometry, arithmetic, logic and calculus.

Volume 1 documents the growth of mathematical science in the civilizations of Babylon, Ancient Egypt, the Mayas, India and China, and assesses the revolutionary discoveries of Plato, Archimedes and Euclid in classical antiquity.

Among the various extracts are pieces on Babylonian mathematics; four geometrical problems from the Moscow Papyrus, which dates from Ancient Egypt, c. 1850 BC; the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, again from Egypt, c. 1650 BC; the Bakhshali Manuscript, from 4th century AD India; the Mayas – discussing their system of numbers, the calendar, arithmetic and chronology, and the Quipu, the method of keeping statistical records using knots, used by the ancient Incas in South America.

Chinese mathematicians include Wan Wang, from the 12th century BC, Chou Kung, c. 1100 BC; Chang Tsang, died 152; Liu Hui, 3rd century AD; Sun-Tsu, from the same century; Hsia-Hou Yang, 6th century AD; Wang Hs’iao-T’ung, 7th century AD, Li Yeh, c. AD 1178-1265; Ch’in Chiu-Shao, c. AD 1250; Yang Hui, c. AD 1275; Chu Chi-Chieh, c. AD 1300.

The Indian scholars collected include Aryabhata the Elder, c. AD. 476; Brahmagupta, AD 598; and Bhascara Acharya, AD 1114-c. 1185.

It also includes the Algebra of Mohammed ben Musa al-Khowarismi, who founded much of modern algebra, including giving it its modern name.

The two Jewish mathematicians collected include the Mishnat ha-Middot of Rabbi Nehemiah, from c. AD 150; and the Method of Division of Immanuel Ben Jacob Bonfils, c. AD 1350.

The ancient Greeks include Hippocrates of Chios, 5th century BC; an extract from Plato’s Dialogues; the Elements of Euclid of Alexandria, c. 300 BC; Apollonius of Perga’s Conic Sections, from the same period; Archimedes’ On Spirals, Mechanical Problems, and Quadrature of the Parabola, Pappus, c. AD 300, and Proclus, AD 410-485.

babylonian-multipilication-table

Ancient Babylonian Multiplication Table for X 10.

For the non-mathematician like myself these texts aren’t easy reading. There are diagrams to help, but many of them, as the pioneering works of their time, are trying to express difficult mathematical ideas without the modern language of Maths, and so it can be difficult understanding what they are trying to describe. Nevertheless, this is an important collection of some of the classic texts of ancient mathematics on which the structure of modern maths has been built.

Scientists and Hackers Back Up Climate Data to Prevent Trump Deleting It

January 30, 2017

Here’s another act of resistance against the Trump regime. In this very short video, Farron Cousins from The Ring of Fire explains how, during Trump’s inauguration, a group of 60 climate scientists and hackers got together to go through the US government’s website to back up all the data on climate change. This information is now stored on servers in Europe. The scientists, technicians and hackers did so to prevent the information from being deliberately purged by Trump. The group intends to compare this with future releases of information on climate by Trump and his cronies in order to prevent him from falsifying evidence against climate change.

Cousins makes very short work of Kelly-Anne Conway’s statements that Trump believes in climate change. Conway is Trump’s spokeswoman, and she’s claimed that he believes in it, as he’s talked about it in the past. Well, no, he hasn’t actually. The only time the Permatanned Duce talked about it, he declared that it was ‘a Chinese hoax’.

Cousins shows how the Republicans not only do not believe in climate change, but they confuse it with weather. Conway apparently says that Trump’s aware that climate change is occurring, because the weather also changes. Cousins shows that while the weather does change from day to day, the climate is rather different. But as he says, the Republicans don’t believe climate change is real, because it still snows, so this obviously disproves global warming.

This is excellent news, as Trump has already shown his determination to expunge and falsify information on climate change through imposing gagging orders preventing officials working for the Environmental Protection Agency from publishing data that does not match the Trump-approved party line.

Other scientists are planning to organise a march on Washington as a protest against Trump’s and the Republicans’ attacks on climate science, evolution and renewable energy.

It’s great that so much is being done to defend climate science from attacks from Trump and the Republicans. And this is just one facet of a general movement by millions of people throughout the world against Trump and his policies.

Brian Stableford and David Langford on Automation, Unemployment and Retraining in the 21st Century

January 5, 2017

Over the past year there have been a number of warnings that within the next three decades, 2/3 of all jobs could vanish due to mechanization. The science fiction writers Brian Stableford and David Langford also cover this projected crisis in their fictitious history of the thousand years from the beginning of this century to the end of the 29th, The Third Millennium (London: Paladin Grafton Books 1988). They predict that governments and society will find a solution to this in life-long learning and direction of the unemployment into the construction industry for a massive programme of public works.

They write

Massive Unemployment in the West
By the year 2000 automation was having such a significant effect on manufacturing that unskilled and semi-skilled workers were being made redundant in large numbers. Less skilled holders of ‘white-collar jobs’ were also being displaced by information technology. There seemed no immediate prospect of redeploying these workers, and their increasing numbers were a source of embarrassment to many Western governments. In the Soviet countries, where employment was guaranteed, jobs were found, but it was becoming all too obvious that many of these were unnecessary. The communist countries had other problems too. The political power to redeploy labour easily was there, and the educational system was better equipped than in the West for practical training, but there were no economic incentives to motivate the workers.

In the West the real problem was p0artly economic and partly educational. Allowing market forces to govern patterns of employment was inefficient. It was not that there was no work – there were chronic housing problems in most of the affected nations, and the need for urban renewal was desperate. Unfortunately, there was no institutional apparatus to divert unused labour to these socially desirable but essentially unprofitable tasks. To pay workers to do such jobs, instead of doling out a pittance to compensate them for not having jobs, would have required massive and politically unacceptable increases in taxation. The educational part of the problem was the absence of effective retraining to allow people to switch easily from one semi-skilled task to another, thus allowing the movement of labour into the new areas of employment.

With hindsight, it is easy to see the pattern of changes that had to occur in both systems, and it may seem ridiculous that it was not obvious what had to be done. In fact, it probably was obvious to many, and the patterns of change were directed by common sense, but there was much superstitious resistance to the evolution of the economic system away from the capitalist and communist extremes.

Lifelong education
The educational reforms were easier to implement in the West than the economic reforms (though even education tended to be dominated by tradition, and was certainly not without its superstitions). it became accepted in the course of the early twenty-first century the adaptability of labour was a priority. It was simply not sufficient for an individual to learn a skill while still at school, or during an apprenticeship, and then to expect his skill to remain in demand throughout his lifetime. By the year 2010, the idea that a man or woman ought to have a single ‘educational phase’ early in life was becoming obsolete in the developed nations, and educational institutions were being adapted to provide for people of all ages, who would visit and use them continually or periodically, by choice as well as by necessity. By 2050 there was an almost universally accepted opinion in the West that ‘an education’ was something that extended over an entire lifetime. The old familiar cliché ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ was now beginning to take on a musty air, like something in Chaucerian English, approaching its near-incomprehensibility to the average citizen of today.

Enforced growth of the public sector
Despite the robotization of many manufacturing processes, the demand for manual labour did not decline markedly during the twenty-first century. To some extent, displaced factory-workers were shifted into various kinds of building work in the private sector. But it was the expansion of public sector construction and maintenance that kept the demand high. There were, of course, special opportunities created by the building of the information networks, and much manual work as a result of flooding, but there was a more fundamental reason for the state’s increased need for manual workers. As society became more highly technological, depending on an ever-increasing range of complicated artefacts, more and more work had to be put into reconstructing and repairing the artificial environment. Because maintenance work, unlike most manufacturing processes, is occasional and idiosyncratic rather than ceaseless and repetitive, it cannot – even to this day – be whole turned over to machines. Machinery is vital to such work, but so are human agents. Governments employed more and more people to do centrally organized work, and collected the taxes they needed to do it.

There were no such redeployment prospects for the redundant white-collar workers. As their jobs disappeared, they had to undertake more radical retraining, and it was mostly these workers who moved into such new jobs as were being created by the spread of the information networks. Their skills had to be ‘upgraded’, but the same was true of the manual labourers, who had a least to become more versatile. The working population as a whole needed to be better educated, if only in the sense of being always able to learn new skills. Relative few individuals lacked the capacity for this kind of education, and the vast majority adapted readily enough. (pp. 98-100)

I’m not sure how realistic the solutions Stableford and Langford propose are. Looking back, some of the book’s predictions now seem rather dated. For example, the book takes it for granted that the Communist bloc would continue to exist, whereas it collapsed in eastern Europe very swiftly in the years following the book’s publication.

I also think the idea of lifelong learning has similarly been abandoned. It was very popular in the late 1980s and the 1990s, when higher education was expanding rapidly. But there has certainly been a reaction against the massive expansion of university education to the extent that half of the population are now expect to acquire degrees. Critics of the expansion of graduate education have pointed out that it has not brought the greater innovation and prosperity that was expected of it, and has served instead to take jobs away from those without an academic background as graduates are forced instead to take unskilled jobs.

I also think that it’s highly debatable whether the expansion of the construction industry on public works would compensate for the jobs lost through further mechanisation. Even if the government were to accept the necessity of raising taxes to finance such ‘make work’ programmes. My guess is that they’d simply carry on with the ‘workfare’ policy of forcing the unemployed to work on such projects as were strictly necessary in return for their unemployment benefit.

As for the various retraining programmes, some schemes like this have been tried already. For example, back in the 1990s some councils ran programmes, which gave free computer training to the unemployed. But I can see any further retraining schemes launched in the future being strictly limit in scope, and largely cosmetic. The point of such programmes would be to give the impression that the government was tackling the problem, whereas in fact the government would be only too eager for the situation to carry on as it is and keep labour cheap and cowed through massive unemployment.

I also don’t believe that the jobs created by the expansion of information technology will also be adequate to solve the problems. To be fair, the next paragraph from the passage above states that these solutions were only partly successful.

Of course, this situation could all change over the next three decades. But I can see no real solutions to the increasingly desperate problem of unemployment unless neoliberalism is completely discarded along with the Tories, Lib Dems and Blairite Labour, which support it.

Counterpunch: No Proof Behind FBI and CIA Claims of Russian Hacking

January 3, 2017

Last week, Obama threw out 35 Russian diplomats, claiming that they were spies responsible for the hacking of the Democrats’ computers, leaking the scandalous details of Clinton’s massive corruption and handing the presidency to Donald Trump. The FBI and CIA both claimed that the Russians were responsible for the hacking. However, yesterday Counterpunch posted an article by Thomas Knapp pointing out that the document the agencies produced to show this actually did no such thing. He wrote

Marcello Truzzi, a skeptic of paranormal claims, once said “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.”

The claim of Russian interference in the election is certainly extraordinary (“beyond what is ordinary or usual; highly unusual or exceptional or remarkable”). So is US president Barack Obama’s response, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and closure of two diplomatic compounds in the US.

The “evidence” in the report, however, is not extraordinary. It’s not even ordinary. It’s non-existent. The report is just a list of cyber warfare methods accompanied by some pretty diagrams. No IP or MAC addresses. No chain of verifiable records showing suspect packets coming from, or going to, Russian machines. The report’s “evidence” for Russian government involvement is the same “evidence” we’ve been offered before: “It’s so because we say it’s so. Trust us.”

Did the Russians conduct cyber attacks for the purpose of influencing the election’s outcome? It wouldn’t surprise me, but I don’t know. You probably don’t know either. The US government continues to state it as fact while declining to prove it.

Knapp reminds his readers of the way American intelligence falsified the information on Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, which was cited by General Colin Powell, and provided the pretext for the invasion of Iraq. He concludes that attacking the Russians is a stupid move, if it’s designed to divert attention away from the content of the leaked information. And it’s also extremely dangerous, as it raises further tensions with Putin.

See: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/01/02/russian-hacking-report-all-hat-no-cattle/

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the former British ambassador, who actually took possession of the leaked documents for WikiLeaks, said that he got them from Democrat insiders disgusted with Killary and her corruption. The Russians could have hacked the Democrats’ computer, but that’s not where he got the information from. And the American comedian and guest on The Young Turks, Jimmy Dore, has also pointed out that the CIA are notorious liars. They’ve cooked up false information throughout their history to justify their invasion of other countries for American interests, and against those of those nations’ own citizens.

So while Obama’s statement that the FBI and CIA have both provided proof that the Russians have tried to influence American domestic politics through hacking, the opposite is the case. It’s another unsupported claim, and one which deserves more than a little scepticism.

David A. Hardy on Terraforming the Solar System

December 31, 2016

As well as colonising the other planets in the solar system with self-contained, sealed environments to protect their future human inhabitants, it may also one day be possible to terraform them. This means transforming them from their currently hostile conditions to an Earthlike environment. At the moment, the planet considered most suitable for terraforming is Mars, because of all the planets it seems to present the least obstacles to this form of planetary engineering. I can remember reading a piece in the Sunday Express way back in the 1980s, which discussed James Lovelock’s suggestions for creating an earthlike atmosphere on the Red Planet. Lovelock is the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that Earth’s biosphere acts like a gigantic, self-regulating organism. This became a favourite of several of the New Age neo-pagan religions in the 1990s, where it was incorporated into worship of the Earth Mother. Lovelock believed that while nuclear weapons were a serious danger to all life on Earth, they could be used creatively on Mars to produce an environment that would support life. Mars has large amounts of carbon dioxide locked up at its polar regions in the form of dry ice. he believed that this could be melted using nuclear missiles. Specially targeted nuclear explosions would cover the polar regions with an insulating layer of soil. This would keep the heat in, which is currently radiated back into space, reflected by the white ice. The rise in temperature would cause the dry ice to sublimate into carbon dioxide gas. This would then start a greenhouse effect, which would see more carbon dioxide and other gases released into the Martian atmosphere. This would eventually create an environment, where the atmosphere was thick enough for humans to be able to move around without space suits. They would, however, still need oxygen masks and tanks to be able to breathe. Lovelock was extremely optimistic about how many weapons would be needed. He believed that you’d only need four, if I remember correctly.

Lovelock’s ideas are wrong, but other scientists and Science Fiction writers have also suggested ways of transforming the Red Planet into a place where life can thrive. Back in the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy of books set on a Mars that was being colonised and terraformed by humanity, beginning with Red Mars. The veteran SF writer, Arthur C. Clarke, also produced a book in which he used to a computer programme to show what Mars may look like as it’s being terraformed. Over hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years, rivers, seas and oceans develop and green spreads over its land surface as vegetation begins growing on its previously barren surface.

David A. Hardy, the space artist, who has illustrated a number of books on space, including several with the late Patrick Moore, also described the various ways in which the Moon, as well as Mercury, Venus and Mars, could be terraformed in his 1981 book, Atlas of the Solar System (Kingswood, Surrey: World’s Work). He writes

Taking the concept of manned bases on other planets still further, there is the staggering possibility of ‘planetary engineering’ or terraforming – a term coined in 1942 by science fiction writer Jack Williamson. The idea is simply to make other worlds habitable by humans. An early suggestion, in 1961, by Carl Sagan was to ‘seed’ the atmosphere of Venus with blue-green algae, converting the carbon dioxide into oxygen and at the same time reducing the pressure and temperature (by eliminating the greenhouse effect). The upper clouds would condense and rain would fall, forming oceans.

A more recent alternative, now that we know how hostile Venus really is, is to ferry in ice asteroids 15 km or so in diameter, put them into orbit around Venus and aim them, using rocket jets, at a specific spot on the surface. Each crashes at nearly 100 km/s, at such an angle that Venus’ rotation is increased until a 24-hour day is approached, while at the same time water is provided as the ice melts. Then the atmosphere is seeded with blue-green algae.

The same could even be done with the Moon: once given a breathable atmosphere by baking oxygen out of the rocks with giant parabolic mirrors, it would remain for thousands of years, even if not replenished. The time factor for the operation is remarkably short. Mercury would need to be shielded from the Sun by a ‘parasol’ of rocky particles put up by mass-driver, or by a man-made ring. Mars would need to be warmed up, perhaps by reflecting sunlight on to the poles with huge, thin metal-foil mirrors, increasing the energy-flow at the poles by 20 per cent. or we could spread dark material from its carbonaceous moons on them with a mass-driver. Rich not only in carbon but in oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, this is excellent raw material for fertiliser. One the atmosphere was thickened, the greenhouse effect and carefully chosen plant life should do the rest. (pp. 86-7).

The process of transforming these planets into habitable worlds would take quite a long time – decades, if not centuries, and at present it is the stuff of science fiction. But I hope that there will be a time when we can move out from Earth to create new homes for life and civilisation on these worlds.