Wednesday, May 30, 2012

RAPTOR RAPTURE

Maggie Engler and John Halverson are members of our Black Hills honeybee club.  Turns out they are also experts and keepers of another winged creature.  They put on a very fine program for the members of the Minneluzahan Senior Center in Rapid City.  

Hmmm...owls prowl for critters at night.  Cats do too.  Must be pretty scary out there by moonlight.


 

Monday, May 28, 2012

50-YEAR OLD MEMORY BETTER THAN 1,000 PICTURES

Not my memory.  Heck, I forgot what I ate for breakfast.  

But I do recall, like it was yesterday, jumping with glee in 1963 when my college let me have their old IBM 1620 mainframe computer when it was replaced.  I couldn't wait to truck it home to my garage and start surgically autopsying my new cadaver.  I methodically removed every little screw, indicator light, contact switch, transformer. 

 But most prized of all was the deepest inner soul of the beast.  It's processing memory.  It was called "core memory," named for the donut-shaped cores, made of graphite, like in pencil lead.  During computations the cores would be magnetized North or South. (Or L/R, or U/D, or B/W, or yes, even the infamous 1's and 0's, all of which were untrue.  Magnets are either N or S.  All those other artificial dichotomies were just authors' imaginations and surrogate place-holders in our number system.)  They stopped making core memory like this decades ago.

For days I excavated slowly, carefully, making sure not to break any part.  Just in case one might someday want to reassemble this into a revived digital Frankenstein corpse.  Finally, I exposed the sarcophagus that contained the sacred core memory.  Those little bits that had kept me awake so many nights as a graduate student trying to master the special new realm of computer language that it took to talk to them.  They had been so perfectly obedient.  Which was the problem.  

They always did exactly what I asked.  And with only a beginner's grasp of their language I often asked things of them that neither they nor I wanted, or perhaps didn't even understand.

I had tried so many hundreds of times to talk in their symbols, asking them to spit back things I already knew, like the trigonometric cosine of a 60-degree angle, or the volume of a cube.  But the real bonding between me and these little cores had developed when we jointly shared the intractable goal of calculating a perfect square root of a prime number, or the exact area of a circle. That took special algorithms, a kind of game plan for me to coach this little team of fella's how they would have to work together among themselves to discover something I never had known (such as the square root of 173.69, to a precision of 7 decimal places).  

Sometime, later in graduate school, I mastered their language.  About seven of their languages, in fact.  They were so ready to go to work for a knowing master.  Not just an articulate master, but one who cared to reduce their work.  I spent a master's degree trying to develop methods to make computers work easier, run faster.  I developed some ideas for my computer algorithms to calculate ways to speed up other peoples' algorithms.  Techniques that would allow a computer to arrive a conclusion sooner, with less work.  Methods that would allow a computer to serve more people in less time.  Or help the nascent space shuttle recalculate its glide path in time to land safely.

It was all born of necessity.  For months I had been programming multivariate statistical models that solved near-singular eigenvalue problems.  And I know that you know, those rascals take a long, long time to compute.  I would hand the program to the computer one day, then go home for a bit of sleep.  Maybe even take children Christine and Paul to the park to fly kites.  Then come back to the computer lab the next night to see what sort of mathematical construct my team of memory cores had built for me (why were those early computer labs always in the...basement?)

So I branched out, developing new mathematical algorithms whose sole purpose was to improve the statistical likelihood that they could glance over the grinding calculations of another algorithm in progress, then recommend a short cut to just leap right toward the answer.  Like telling someone running around a maze to stick their head above the walls, see where the goal probably is, then just go there.  Why calculate the entire path, when you can just finesse an algorithmic Gretzky? 


And it worked.  These memory cores were great little soldiers.  We advanced some pretty crafty new strategies to accelerate iterative processes to turn near-singular eigenvector matrices upside down, (i.e., like guessing an entire song after hearing only the first few bars.  Or putting a "Hurry Up!" button on the front of an old three-ton, water-cooled clunker of a mainframe computer.)  They helped me get a master's thesis, and kept up the moneyflow to feed and clothe the kids.

Isn't it too bad, that today we hear people use the phrase "core dump" and they have no flinching what the heck they are referring to.  How much grunting, grinding, grimacing and genius grandeur they are discounting.  Or when someone says "core memory," how little do they get to appreciate that when one refers to a "core memory" it is referring to a phase of  human developoment, a period of history, an journey of scientific discovery, an environment for raising kids, a transition to a new realm of mankind's peer-to-peer partnership with machine.

This morning I took this IBM 1620 Core Plane out of a special box I've kept it in for a very long time.  Although delicate as teeny donuts of pencil lead, not a single fragile graphite core had been broken after decades of packing and unpacking in moves state to state.  I was going to photograph it and put it on sale.  But seeing it was more moving than photographs and portraits of the time.  One doesn't have a relationship with photographs, although we sometimes do with the people in them.  But with this core plane, I did have a relationship.  This core plane had been a major participant in my family.  It helped feed and clothe the kids, and it helped me develop beyond normal.

And it's still a member of our family.

Next year, in 2013, it will be 50 years old.  I can't just sell it.  I will send it to my grand children so that 50 years from now they can show it to their own grandchildren and say, this was a member of your great, great, great grandparents' family.  It helped buy our mom's (dad's) shoes when they were kids. It opened doors for scientific discovery by our grandfather, and it helped him confirm some mathematical algorithms he invented.

Maybe they'll frame it and put it on the wall next to my portrait.  Maybe they'll understand this framed core-plane offers a deeper biographical portrait of me than 1,000 pictures.






PACK GOATS at the OAK-TREE SALAD BUFFET

Sylvan, Custer, Sturgis and Harney were hungry.  Real hungry, after being confined to quarters for three days of rain.  Well, not exactly "confined," mind you.  Actually they're spoiled kids who just don't like to get their tootsies wet.  And when Sturgis' pure black coat gets wet it looks like an overworked 1950's super-perm wave job (which the others tease him about).

So when the sun cleared, they were all about heading out for a serious chowdown at the ultimate springtime all-you-can-eat Black Hills Forest Oak-Tree Buffet.  And since Harney the runt normally gets last-pickens at the trough in the barn, he especially appreciates the wide open every-where-you-look serving line.  












Monday, May 14, 2012

GOATS GET A READ ON SEATTLE FAMILY

Christine's family sent a picture book to us in the Black Hills so we could read about family in Seattle.  Every evening at bed time the goats ask Lee to read to them.

Sometimes the goats read to each other.  Custer politely asked his very nice brother, Sturgis, "Hey Sturgis.  Would you please read it to us again?"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

SENIOR EXPLORERS CHECK OUT CATHEDRAL ROCKS

On May 12, 2012 the Black Hills Explorers were back in action.  This time visiting the cathedral-like spires of the Custer State Park near Mt. Rushmore and Sylvan Lake.  It was a beautiful day, an inspiring geologic environment, and a very rewarding outdoor exercise.

Our hike was made even more enjoyable by the exercise-savvy duo of JoAnn and John Sterner, co-directors of the new canyon lake health and fitness center in Rapid City.  At the trailhead both JoAnn and John led our eager crew in a 5-minute pre-hike flexibility workout.  Most of us agreed during the hike and upon returning from the strenuous trek expressed the opinion that the pre-hike warmup certainly did improve the overall experience (and ourselves!).









Thursday, May 10, 2012

GOOSE SPOOF STOPS CUSTER BLUSTER

Custer the goat is the smartest, baddest of the herd, and also the all around "Barn Yard Bully."  Like any bully, he rules by sheer intimidation.  And, now and then, by real cunning and brute strength.  But then he met our fearless white mother goose.  


No species I know of is more skillful at just pure bluffing down other beasts, as a goose.  It's all squawk and talk.  It works sometimes.  And as usual the easiest one to bully is another bully.  


It's a standoff so far as mother goose tells Custer he cannot use the gangplank to get off Muscle Bench...until Momma says so.  


But goose soon learned a basic goat-rule..."Speak softly and carry a big horn."
Two Bullies on A Plank