Friday Surprise: Clark Terry, 1920-2015.

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An influential jazz master has died.

When I was a budding trumpet player there were two major influences on the evolution of the trumpet in jazz: Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Oh, there were others to be sure: Freddie Hubbard was coming into his own, and there were those who hung on every note that Chet Baker played, but by and large everyone was trying to sound like Diz or Miles. (I can remember once attending a concert by a then-teenaged ...

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Friday Surprise: “If it ain’t a Boeing, I ain’t going!”

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What airplane is still in front-line operational use 60 years after it first went into service? The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, of course! There’s a reason for that, not the least of which is that we have a lot of spare parts…

Ahh, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. When I was a kid the B-52 was the symbol of American might around the globe. Sure, we had ballistic missiles, but the pride of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was the B-52. It was ...

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Friday The 13th Surprise: Most people don’t know what algorithms are, let alone what they do.

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al·go·rithm  (N) : a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process.

Sounds simple, right? You might be surprised what lurks behind that definition.

Algorithms aren’t things devised by our former Vice-President, but rather sets of instructions that you follow to get to a specific result. You and I use algorithms all the time, but we don’t recognize them as such because they’re called by more common terms: directions, recipes, flowcharts, ...

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Friday Surprise: Recent history is surprisingly hard to find.

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You’d think, in the modern world, that our history is covered from every angle and therefore hard to lose. You might be surprised where you have to look to unearth some of it.

Recent history, say from the last 30 or 40 years, isn’t as well preserved as you might think. We are a forward-moving culture; we jettison what is old and eagerly adopt what is new. This behavior has given us phenomenal technological advancement (from which the rest of the ...

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Friday Surprise: People have been using cameras to annoy other people for a very long time.

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It’s easy to think that what is has always been, and depending on when you were born that might be true. Luckily there are places you can go to learn it’s not always been this way!
Digital photography is ubiquitous today, and though in common use for only a little over a decade and a half (and only really popular in the last ten years) it’s hard to imagine life before pixels. For those folks born after ...
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Friday Surprise: What’s Wrong with a Wright house?

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The most famous American architect had his share of failures. Some of them are still around, like this one in my neighborhood.
A few years back, our little corner of Oregon was the scene of a battle over a to-be-demolished house. The owners of said house, which had been vacant for some time and fallen into disrepair, had purchased the property with the intention of tearing down the old and building anew. The county agreed with ...
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Friday Surprise: Ralph Morse, 1917-2014.

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ralph002bmorse.
One of the premier photojournalists of the 20th century died this week, and I admit to being a little depressed.
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There was a time when LIFE Magazine was the preeminent outlet for photojournalism. Between 1936 and the early 1970s, anyone with a reputation as a “shooter” worked for LIFE: Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred ...
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Friday Surprise: Eddie Want BIG Boom. Surprisingly, he got his wish.

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Back in the 1950s there were two sorts of people: those who were scared of nuclear fission and wanted the world to forget it ever existed, and those who wanted to figure out how to package it as a gift item at Christmas. (Well, not really; proponents thought that it could be an all-occasion gift and great fun at parties, to boot.)

Okay, I’m kidding. But there were people who thought nuclear bombs had civil ...

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Friday Surprise: some people talk about perfection. Others actually achieve it.

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438187213_1280x720.

In every area of endeavor there are those who stand head and shoulders above even the very best in their field. In the world of watchmaking, that person is Philippe DuFour.
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In an old schoolhouse in a little village in Switzerland, just a few miles from the French border, sits the shop of one of the greatest watchmakers of all time. Philippe DuFour is famous among the ...
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Friday Surprise: History made easy.

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8a31198v.

 

I’ve written about the Farm Security Administration (and its successor, the Office of War Information) photography projects on several occasions. The FSA was a propaganda campaign by the Roosevelt administration to convince Americans that the President’s policies were both desperately needed and remarkably effective. When World War II started, their mission was changed to supporting the war effort, and the FSA ...

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Friday Surprise: launch time!

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apollopatch
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In 1969 NASA aimed a high-speed movie camera at the launch of Apollo 11, and what they got is still astounding.
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The Apollo moon launches were amazing spectacles that were watched live by huge numbers of people around the world. I remember being in grade school and everything coming to a halt so that we could ...
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Friday Surprise: timekeeping with teeth.

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naturejournal36londuoft_0523
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We take modern manufacturing for granted, but before the advent of CNC and 3D printing craftspeople did amazing things. To do so, they used amazing tools. Here’s the story of one.
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As you may remember, when I was but a child in my early ‘teens I apprenticed as a watch and clockmaker. It wasn’t because I intended that to be my life’s work, but ...
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Friday Surprise: Blast from the past. Literally.

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Seems that 60 Minutes went poking around a Minuteman III missile launch complex and discovered something we all thought had become extinct.
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If, like me, you were into computers in the late ’70s and through the ’80s, you probably remember the first floppy disks: very thin magnetic media that spun inside of a flexible sleeve. Hard drives, at least for the hobbyist, were still wildly ...
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Friday Surprise: Someday I’m going to write a book that’s not about guns or self defense. It’ll be about time.

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Whether you realize it or not, the precise measurement of time is absolutely vital to maintain the world in which we live — and it’s been this way for hundreds of years.
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As soon as mankind stopped hunting and gathering for sustenance, the measurement of time became important. As agrarian societies started to take hold, the need to be able to know what season ...
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Friday Surprise: Ansel Adams didn’t always take pictures of mountains.

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We usually think of Ansel Adams as the creator of gorgeous coffee table books of natural wonders and beautiful scenes, but like most of his generation he did a lot of commissioned work for people and institutions. Some of that work shows up now and again.

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The name Ansel Adams is familiar to many people, whether or not they’re avid photographers. Adams became very well known to other photographers in the early 1930s when he and several ...
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Friday Surprise: I’m a Space Cadet – how about you?

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S68-26668

What’s the significance of this patch?

One of the streaming video programs we’ve been watching has been a history of space exploration produced by NASA. I’ve made no secret about my enthusiasm for the U.S. space program which dominated my young life, and it’s hardly surprising that I’d get into this series! It’s well produced and informative, with interviews of not just the astronauts but the engineers and scientists and Mission Control people who ...

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Friday Surprise: Serious nerd alert – talking about supercomputer operating systems!

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How do you recover something historical when you lack the means to even tell if you have it?
I’m not sure how I stumbled across this article, but it’s an interesting one: the search for the original operating system for the Cray-1 supercomputer.

When I was a kid, Seymour Cray and his Cray-1 supercomputer were already legendary. Cray’s machine was the most powerful computer in the world, achieving a performance of 80 MFLOPS (80,000,000 floating point operations per ...

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Friday Surprise: History turns on a rock.

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I have a somewhat convoluted tale to tell, so sit back and follow the trail.
My first real career aspiration (after the obligatory “fireman” and “astronaut” phases, of course) was to design optical systems for spy satellites. To be precise I wanted to work for one of the satellite contractors, Perkin-Elmer, which had been responsible for the camera systems on the KH-9 satellite that we were then using to spy on…well, bad people. Like the Russkies, whose ...
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Friday Surprise: Metamaterials could alter our perceptions of what’s possible.

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One of the big benefits of the internet has been the democratization of knowledge. As little as ten years ago, for instance, it was commonly believed that the bumble bee somehow violated the laws of aerodynamics, and that scientists couldn’t understand how it flew.

640px-AD2009Aug08_Bombus_pratorum

Today that myth has largely dissipated, thanks to the ability to look it up on Wikipedia. What only the most informed people knew a few decades ago is now common ...

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Friday Surprise: Welcome to 2014 – film at 11:00!

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The period around the start of a new year is always one of retrospection: innumerable articles and videos about what happened in the past year (or the last decade, as appropriate.) I don’t really go in for that sort of thing, but someone new to this blog, and my work, may think of me as the nostalgic type anyhow. After all, I’m a champion of the revolver as a viable defensive tool, and what can be more evocative of past ...

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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Coffee, tea, or chocolate??

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fighting-chocolate

My mother’s side of the family were (still are, actually) porcelain makers in the Old Country. My mother, being proud of her heritage, collects vintage pieces from the family works and has been doing so for decades.

I remember a particular piece that she picked up early on: it looked just like a coffee pot but was smaller. I thought it must be some sort of teapot until my mother explained that it was ...

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Friday Surprise: The law (and how we apply it) changes over time. Sometimes dramatically.

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One of my favorite bloggers, and one to whom I’ve referred many times, is David Friedman. He’s an academic economist and a Professor of Law at Santa Clara University — and, as he proudly notes, “…have never taken a course for credit in either field.”

Friedman’s background is in chemistry and physics (as I recall, his doctorate is in physics), but interests and expertise go far beyond the hard sciences. He’s also interested in libertarianism and market anarchist ...

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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Gordon Parks – cool like Steve McQueen, but with more talent.

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Gordon_Parks

One of the more intriguing people of the 20th century was Gordon Parks. Born into a poor farm family, attacked and beaten because of the color of his skin, told that trying to achieve anything in life would be a waste of his effort, he nonetheless went on to become an accomplished photographer, writer, poet, composer, and film director – not to mention political activist.

It’s that first career which interests ...

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FRIDAY SURPRISE: A place where things that go BOOM used to be made. Emphasis on “used to”.

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If you’re new here, you should know about my fascination with abandoned things. As it happens, the more closely related something abandoned is to something else I’m interested in, the more fascinated I become. Today we hit the trifecta: it’s abandoned, it has to do with munitions, and it’s in my family’s ancestral homeland!

The ICI Nobel plant at Ardeer, in the Ayr district of Scotland (ancestral home of Clan Cunningham), was established in 1873 to make nitroglycerine. Alfred Nobel himself, ...

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FRIDAY SURPRISE: When it comes right down to it, everything on the planet is either harvested or mined. Here’s a story about the latter.

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It’s pretty well understood that fortunes (and governments) have risen and fallen on such valuable commodities as oil, gold, and gemstones. What’s probably less known is that the same thing has happened with more prosaic things, like salt (yes, salt. Munich, for instance, was largely built on the fortunes of the salt trade, and Liverpool was just a backwater until salt shipments started flowing through her port. Wars were fought over salt, and even involved some siblings – Venice and ...

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FRIDAY SURPRISE: How to make water flow backwards using a video camera.

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One of the interesting things about a video camera is the effect its sequential shutter has on moving objects. A video (or a movie) is a collection of still frames played back rapidly enough that your visual system doesn’t detect the gaps between the images. Each image is a slice of time, but when those slices don’t match the movement of an object you get some interesting effects. (Ever watch a video of a moving car where ...

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FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Star Spangled Banner wasn’t always our national anthem. What was?

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So, let’s say you’re starting a new country. There are lots of things you need to do, but once the fighting has stopped and your new nation is established you turn your mind to more important things – you know, things like adopting a Constitution, setting up a court system, figuring out a national currency, paying off your war debts, and so on. Management, it’s called.

One of those management tasks on your to-do list might be the adoption of a ...

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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Riding the rails – my first experience with Amtrak.

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On Wednesday I mentioned that I’d attended a shooting instructor’s conference; what I didn’t tell you is that I decided on a slightly unconventional (for 2013) mode of transportation to get there: I took a train from my home in Oregon to Bakersfield, CA.

Anyone who knows me knows how I hate to fly. I don’t mind airplanes, you understand; in fact, I’m fascinated by them. What I dislike is air travel: airlines, airports, crowds, intrusive security, and all the stuff ...

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