increasingly Soviet model
Friday, May 5 2006
Gretchen is down in New York City and I'm here at the house by myself burning off the nerdy shows I Tivo. I just saw an especially bad Nova called The Elegant Universe. Beginning with Isaac Newton, it crawled through the history of physics, with different talking heads making identical points about each hero along the way. Finally we were left with Einstein and his plan to unify all the forces of the universe without the help of quantum mechanics. Then, as always, we were introduced to string theory, the salvation of physics in a time when more than half of Americans still think they share no common ancestors with their pets. I am so sick of string theory. If I cared more about it, I'd do a Google search and read up about it, but I can't be bothered. (Okay, I ended up being bothered; I found that following the advanced links but skipping past the equations made for the best read.) Nothing that is ever said about it makes any sense. As in tonight's episode, it's always presented in a flurry of undefined words. Everything, we're told, is comprised of "vibrating 11 dimensional strings of energy." But, in that context, what exactly is "energy" and "vibrating." We're told these string vibrate exactly like strings of a cello. Then we're helpfully shown a cellist and a cello, and then, because it's all weird and 11-dimensional, we're shown a few more. They all wear a tantalizing set of black straps across their bare (though not especially bony) shoulders. Finally a few incomprehensible equations are shown (but never explained) on a blackboard and then that's it. We're supposed to have faith that string theory is really going to tell us something some day. After all, the greatest young minds in theoretical physics are all working on it. I have my doubts. I think those physicists might better apply themselves to explaining how exactly Moses parted the Red Sea that time that the Bible lied about.
In keeping with the fascinating arc of the Bush administration towards an increasingly Soviet model, today came the forced resignation of CIA Director Porter Goss, one of many flickering bulbs in the chandelier of Washington. The resignation is an enigma cloaked in a mystery wrapped in a soft taco that will require a few weeks of leaks and extra-spicy salsa for discerning minds to puzzle out. In the meantime, we're left to look for little things in the resulting public rituals, much as old watchers of the Soviet Union placed great importance of the arrangement of dignitaries during May Day parades. When, for example, Bush said of Goss, "Porter's tenure at the CIA was one of transition," it's possible to read the statement as the absence of praise, as when a realtor states that a house "is charming." No hot tub there!
Yesterday I went into Uptown to have dinner at Chop Suey with Mr. and Ms. Tillson (Gretchen had another engagement). Mr. Tillson had brought me an old Apple ][ that had been taking up space in various attics since the mid-1980s. Today I had it running a few goofy little BASIC programs just to see if it could perform trigonometry and such. Then I swapped its 6502 processor for a 65C02 just to see what would happen. It booted up from a floppy just fine but then had trouble accessing the high end of memory. So then I tried a 6502A and it worked perfectly.
There are two things I like about an old computer like an Apple. Firstly, all its components are relatively discrete and macroscopic, meaning you can run wires in there and attach your own circuits to big targets. In the Apple, all the chips are actually socketed, an amazing luxury. That gives you another level of hardware flexibility, the kind one never gets today.
The other thing I like about old computers is how little power they use. The power supply for an old Apple produces only about 30 watts of power, less than a tenth that of a modern computer. If I figure out a way to, say, use an Apple to control my solar heating system, leaving it on all the time wouldn't end up being much of an extravagance.
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