Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shakedown Street

We had an earthquake in Washington, DC, yesterday. Not just a slight trembling of the ground, mind you. This one was a magnitude 5.8 (or 5.9), which is a good-size temblor, even for places that get earthquakes regularly. For us, it didn't feel like anything unusual, but then, my office is on the first floor and our building has only one floor. At first, I thought the airconditioner in our building, which is on the roof and had been having issues for the past month or so, had kicked on with a vengeance. But then our emergency crew evacuated the entire building to the parking lot (later, we learned that's not what you're supposed to do in an earthquake). I've been through quakes before, when I was at Stanford, and I didn't think this was much of a shake - until news reports came in and said it was 5.8 and centered around Mineral, Virginia, which is not far from Fredricksburg. The news also mentioned that this one was felt as far north as MIT.

DC reacted the way it usually does to things like this - or snow events. Everyone went into a controlled panic, which is kind of like the controlled skid an SUV does on black ice - right into the guardrail. An hour later, all the Federal employees were sent home, and that's when the chaos began. Metro was first shut down and then reopened at slower than normal speeds - trains were running at 15 miles an hour. Freeways and downtown streets clogged up suddenly and so firmly that people didn't get home for hours. The next morning, several school districts decided to close; it seems they hadn't determined that the buildings were structurally safe. The Feds went on liberal leave. Three of the parapets on the National Cathedral had cracked and fallen off (it took them 90 years to finish the building, and look what happens!), and even the newly restored (in 2000) Washington Monument had developed cracks in some of the marble blocks.

Sure it sounds bad, but the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco was worse. Occurring in 1989 at the very moment the World Series game between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics was in progress, the temblor heralded the birth of my nephew and Barely Brothers bassist, Earthquake Sam, in a Bay Area hospital. It measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, which is a pretty good jolt. Buildings collapsed, water lines and gas lines ruptured, a section of the elevated freeway in Oakland collapsed onto the level below it, huge fires started in various rowhouses and a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed, snarling the commute from Oakland to San Francisco for months thereafter. Portions of the Stanford campus were damaged as well, but my aunt's bungalow stayed upright. There were only 63 deaths reported, which is incredibly fortunate.

I missed it all, being in Texas. But when I was at Stanford, there were no fewer than three earthquakes. These were not terribly big shocks; I don't think there was anything greater than a 5.3 magnitude. But I did get to spend an ominous couple of minutes one afternoon on the 12th floor of a San Mateo office building watching the light poles in the parking lot outside swaying back and forth like a metronome set on 212. And my supervisor's bookshelf collapsed onto what would have been his head had he not been in St. Louis on business.
Texas does not get earthquakes. Or rather it didn't - until the Barnett Shale got drilled. About ten years ago, a very lucrative deposit of natural gas was discovered under the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and every exploration company wanted a piece of it. The problem was getting the gas, given its location. The gas companies had always been capable of directional drilling (which in the '50s was called "slant hole" drilling and was a clever bit of piracy that allowed an enterprising wildcatter to filch his neighbor's oil or gas deposits) to get at the gas without disturbing the airport, but the gas was trapped in rock layers that wouldn't yield very easily - unless high pressure fluids were pumped in to break the rocks and push the gas out. This process - hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" - is sort of like a power enema and has proved very good at dislodging the gas deposits. But recently, residents of Tarrant County noticed that a whole lot of "fracking" earthquakes were occurring, as the ground settled into the pockets where the gas had been. These were not big shakers - averaging no more than 3.0 on the Richter Scale, but they were noticeable, and they occurred with unnerving frequency. The same thing has also happened in places in Arkansas where gas deposits have been tapped, and appears likely to happen in Pennsylvania when those gas fields get drilled.

That's Fort Worth. Houston is very seismically inactive - probably because it sits on a thick layer of sedimentary clay, or gumbo. It doesn't shift so much as it oozes, and it has a tendency to shrink and swell with the amount of groundwater that accumulates during the rainy season. When it oozes (which it does constantly), it plays havoc with foundations and pavements - so much so that homes have been known to slowly grow wall cracks and cracked foundations (and for some reason known only to the shoddy workmanship of the local homebuilders, those show up rather quickly on homes built within the past ten to twenty years).

Meanwhile, back on the East Coast, earthquakes, while infrequent, have been known to occur and to be intense enough that there are seismic requirements in the building codes for communities in the Washington region. This seems prudent, given the worst earthquake to occur east of the Mississippi hit Charleston, South Carolina, in 1886 and registered 7.3 on the Richter scale. The Mississippi River itself was the scene of the strongest earthquakes in the Lower 48, which hit New Madrid, Missouri. There were at least four them over a one-year period beginning in 1811, with the strongest being perhaps an 8.0, or greater than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And the grand-daddy of them all was the Good Friday Earthquake that hit Alaska in 1964 and measured 9.2. While we were not hit as hard as either San Francisco or Charleston or Alaska or Missouri this time, the odds are that we were be due for one. And when the next big one hits, people will again react like there's 10 inches of snow on the ground.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A New Weird Order

The '70s were a good time for cults of personality and conspiracy theorists. It had nothing to do with whatever nefarious devices the folks at the Charles Stark Draper Labs were working on at the moment (and indeed, they had come up with a secret weapon that could bulldoze entire neighborhoods in East Cambridge and disguise it all as urban renewal). No, we're talking about the really kooky stuff. Sun Myung Moon was head of a weird cult, but he was not a conspiracy theorist (he was more likely to hatch the conspiracies). L. Ron Hubbard was out there (and I mean really out there), and he and his merry band of Scientologists were all about self-help and science fiction. Hubbard wrote a whole series of best-selling books of very bizarre science fiction, and he also wrote "Dianetics", a self-help book that was being revised into new editions long after Hubbard's death in 1986. You always knew you had encountered a Scientologist on the street if they offered you the opportunity to take a free psychoanalysis test. The ads for "Dianetics" were always hard to miss; they always asked profound questions like "Why does life suck?" (Page 11), followed by the erupting volcano.

But when it came to off-the-wall conspiracy theories and dogged persistence, no one could touch the followers of Lyndon LaRouche, the third member of that Unholy Trinity. In the early '70s, LaRouche became convinced that Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller were plotting the end of the world; by the mid-70's, he decided it wasn't world destruction they were plotting, but the wholesale de-industrialization of America (and damned if that didn't happen!), for the benefit of that secretive world order that included the Queen of England, the Bilderbergers, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. In 1984, LaRouche decided that the worst thing that could happen to America would be to freeze all our nuclear weapons production; he preferred to build defensive beam weapons in space to shoot down the incoming nukes of the bad guys (because it was high technology, man!) He was also convinced that movements like Greenpeace were part of the Trilateral conspiracy, because nothing symbolized deindustrialization like environmental stewardship.

LaRouche's minions could be found in some of the largest airports in the country hawking their wares and trying to warn the rest of the world about the coming global conspiracy. And they could be found on college campuses like MIT, trying to get nuclear power plants built over the dead bodies of baby seals. They were the sworn enemies of the Clamshell Alliance, which was trying to stop the building of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. And they were the only thing standing in the way of the Queen of England's plot to take over the world by getting us hooked on drugs.
You could always tell LaRouche's followers by their neat JC Penney dress pants, no-iron white shirts, clip-on ties, short hair and glasses. And you could never get rid of them. Once they glommed onto you, they woudn't let go until you'd bought something, anything from them. And signed a petition. They claimed to be Democrats; LaRouche himself ran against Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia in 1990 while he was serving a prison sentence for tax evasion. LaRouche has largely dropped out of sight in the last couple of years - although some people maintain that he is secretly Lou Dobbs.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Technology Squared

Welcome to the '80s! It is a time before BlackBerries, Kindles and Facebook. Bill Gates and Paul Allen have yet to create Windows, but DOS exists and Steve Jobs has already been hard at work in his Cupertino garage with another fellow named Steve Wozniak, and together they have created the first portable computer, the Apple (actually, they're already up to the Apple IIe, a nifty little box with a typewriter and a whole 8 kilobytes of memory!). The rest of us are still used to doing things like tapping out punch cards in a language called FORTRAN to use on one of those big, massive IBM mainframes. There is no Excel, but there's Lotus 1-2-3. There is no PowerPoint, but we have Harvard Graphics. And while there is no Word, or even WordPerfect, there is a nice little gadget known as a Selectric typewriter, and it can type in different fonts! (All you need to do is pop in a different ball). And we can all network socially, thanks to a wonderful thing called Prodigy!

But all is not rosy with this wonderful new high technology. First of all, your KayPro is a heavy sucker. You might have one of those newfangled Compaq boxes, but when Texas Instruments perfects the TI-99/4A, it's going to blow away that Compaq (why did I ever buy 100 shares at $10 a share? I must've been crazy!). The second problem is that those IBM PC's that Charlie Chaplin sells, which are the gold standard, don't have accuracy beyond 8 significant digits (you can get a co-processor that boosts that accuracy to 16 significant digits, but that's money, and who's doing higher-order regressions, anyway?)

Moore's Law has yet to really kick in. We had random access memories, but they had yet to develop amazing superpowers. Bubble memories are only a couple of years old.
Within ten years, computers will have 128k of memory on the hard drive and 16k of RAM, and won't we be flying then? As it is, we've still got the 8086 chips, but pretty soon we'll be moving up to the 80286 (and with an 80287 math co-processor, you'll be able to run those 1-2-3 spreadsheets without having to turn off the automatic recalculation). Those guys at Lotus are geniuses. I don't know what you can do with Symphony, but I hear that Jazz is even better than Symphony.

Actually, that's not what was so amazing about the '80s. Steve Wozniak was one cool guy; he got a whole bunch of bands together and created the US! Festival - three days of fun in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles and west of the Joshua Trees. The Clash were there, and so was Van Halen, and I hear that U2 played an amazing set. On the other end of the country, this guy named Grandmaster Flash was doing absolutely weird things with a couple of turntables, and kids were break-dancing in the streets (did you ever think you'd see someone spin around on their heads?). Cum on, feel the noize!
The '80s also made a bona fide celebrity out of Erland van Lidth de Jeude. If you did not go to MIT, you remember him as the big, mean, bald-headed dude who sang "Down in the Valley" in Stir Crazy. Those of us who took Computer Lab remember him as one of the TA's, a resident of East Campus, an imposing Greco-Roman wrestler (he weighed in excess of 300 pounds, had Size 18 dress shoes and was once measured to have more explosive power than a horse). He was also The Voice, whose larger-than-life presence filled many a Musical Theatre Guild production. When he sang a tune from "1776" in Building 10, they could hear him in Lobby 7. When he wasn't in films, he was a highly paid computer consultant (although he could have made a mint on the WWF circuit). This was probably the only Stickles cartoon that pictured him.
These days, we use Control-Alt-Delete instead of Control-C to unstick a frozen computer.

One of the great MIT hacks dates back about ten years, when the first voice recognition software was introduced. Supposedly (and I was not there to witness it, so I am going strictly on news reports), the software was being demonstrated before a rapt audience, when a lone voice in the audience barked out, "Format C, Enter!" It was followed almost immediately by a second voice in the audience, "Yes, Enter!" The software worked perfectly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Random Killings

We hung out in the hallways a lot. Standing or sitting, it didn't seem to matter; as long as the carpet was dry and reasonably free of foreign substances, the hallway was our hangout. It was a place for eating, drinking, consuming various substances, card games, hall frisbee or even just passing out. But often, it was good for the random conversation or two - complete with random distractions.
In fact, this cartoon was suggested to me by a couple of residents on my floor, complete with one of those "you gotta put this in a cartoon!" hints that I seemed to get every so often. As it was told to me, two of them were sitting in the hallway having a rather serious discussion of Bessel functions, when a roach happened to crawl by.- and the discussion sidetracked almost immediately into frenzied chants of "Kill That Roach!", accompanied by the kind of frenzied stomping that would have made a flamenco dancer proud. The bloodletting having concluded, the two resumed their positions on the floor and returned to their discussion of Bessel functions, which I'm guessing included suggestions to stomp a few of those into the ground.

And like many Stickles cartoons of that era (1978), it was so nice I hadda draw it twice...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Boom Times

MIT is known for explosions. Or rather, MIT is known for chemical reactions that result in the sudden release of large amounts of heat energy. Or if not that, then the sudden release of pressurized gases from a container that may or may not undergo catastrophic failure in the process. We're not talking about what happens when you drop a Mentos candy in a glass of Diet Coke. MIT undegraduates, especially but not limited to the chemistry students, made a recreational habit of combining ordinary materials in ways that caused extraordinary chaos. In fact, it was possible to be awakened at 3 in the morning by a gaggle of Third East students (hackito ergo sum) making thermite flares up on the East  Campus roof.

Everyone knows what happens when you combine water with sulfuric acid. In fact, you're warned to add the sulfuric acid to water and never to add water to sulfuric acid. But there are other chemicals that when mixed together cause a volatile reaction.
My first encounter with the properties of pure sodium in water actually occurred in a high school chemistry lab, when one of my classmates made the mistake of dropping sodium into a beaker of water. We never did find that beaker.
Frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, was also a fun item, specifically because it was colder than normal ice and it sublimed rather than pass into a liquid state. In the process of subliming, it would expand rather rapidly, with predictable consequences. It should also be noted that in real life, Ross could never have held a pellet of dry ice without his fingers suffering frostbite.

A final element that has interesting properties is magnesium, which was used to great effect in World War II. Burning magnesium was difficult to extinguish because it reacted violently to most typical fire-extinguishing agents. Throw water on it and it produced magnesium hydroxide and a whole lot of heat. It also burned hotter when either carbon dioxide or nitrogen were thrown on it. In short, magnesium fires had to be smothered with inert ingredients. Volatile reactions could also result from combinations such as picric acid and sodium hydroxide or ROTC students and SACC activists.