The Rocket Trip

The Rocket

The Rocket

Contrary to what I want to believe and what any reader of this blog might mistakenly think, we are not still on vacation in California. Anne and I returned from LA, early, early Monday morning. She somehow dragged herself into school later that morning, still too early, and successfully concluded her three-month stint as a long-term substitute for the second grade. This was a major achievement that she threw her heart and soul into. She deserves all the kudos that she has already received and more. Congratulations to Anne!

Even before we landed, I was already feeling under the weather. I missed some work, but then soldiered on. On Thursday, at uh-oh dark-thirty I blasted off to Dayton for a business trip. We actually flew into Cincinnati, because the flights were better. While Cincy is in Ohio, its airport is across the river in Kentucky. Walking through the airport I noticed a banner proclaiming that this airport had been named best regional airport in North America, five years in a row. To my colleagues, I suggested that Saint Louis compete for this honor too, but then thought no, still too soon, still too much pride there.

We drove north to Dayton, past the old GE aircraft engine plant, whose parking lots looked way more full than the ones in Saint Louis. I also saw a certain statue. Is the new statue called Big Butter Jesus and the old one called Touchdown Jesus or what? Their relative appearances would suggest this name change. It is hard to keep your idolatry straight, especially, when the finger of God occasionally lances down from the heavens and changes things.

The meeting was three-hours long, of which my part was only half-an-hour and near then end. So, thirteen-hours of travel for half-an hour of meeting, but like with Anne earlier this week that meeting put paid for my last three-months of work too. It made for a very long day. On the way back to the airport, traffic caused us to detour around downtown. We ended up going into Indiana on our way from Ohio to Kentucky. It was quite the rocket trip, out and back in a day.

The photo with this post is of the Rocket a locomotive designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829. While not the first steam locomotive, the Rocket was the first to bring together several innovations that produced the most advanced locomotive of its day. It is the most famous example of an evolving design of locomotives by Stephenson that became the template for most steam engines for the next 150 years. Pictured is a contemporary replica of the Rocket, also made by Stephenson. It can be seen at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Riddle, wapped in Mystery, an Enigma

Chicago's U-505 Enigma Machine

Chicago’s U-505 Enigma Machine

Fifty years ago this week, Gordon Moore published a paper that predicted our ever-expanding computer age. What became known as Moore’s law, forecast the doubling of the power of computers every two years. What began more as a guideline, has proven presciently true, the original forecast was for only ten years, now fifty years on it is still going strong. Moore and the computational revolution he foretold owes its existence in large part to the thinking of Alan Turing, who hypothesized the idea of an automatic machine, a thinking machine, epitomized by his self-styled Turing Machine. Turing was a mathematical genius and a bit of an ass. He broke the Nazi’s WW II Enigma code, but because of secrecy and other concerns, he was not recognized as the war hero that he was. Those other concerns include the fact that he was convicted of homosexuality, which was a crime then. I studied the Turing Machine in college, in the seventies. His groundbreaking research was hailed by my professors. Computer Science didn’t have much of a history, so it could ill afford to toss aside one of its founding fathers. Now, in more enlightened times, Turing’s reputation has undergone a renaissance. In 2013, the crown pardoned him posthumously for his crime of “sexual deviancy”. Last year, the Alan Turing biopic, “The Imitation Game”, was nominated for several Oscars. The movie told his code breaking story well, but incompletely, IMHO.

While little Gordy Moore was still undergoing puberty, Alan Turning was cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code with repurposed telephone exchange equipment, mathematics and his wits. A history lesson within this history lesson is needed here, so please bear with me. At the beginning of WW I the Allies captured a copy of ‘the’ German code book. The Allies were then able to read all of the German radio transmissions throughout the rest of the war and the Germans never suspected this until much after the war. Winston Churchill among others, later disclosed this secret to sensualize their own histories. This news caused outrage within the then nascent Nazi war machine. Admiral Doenitz, commander of the German navy vowed that this would never happen again. This is how the Enigma machine was born. The German army and air force also adopted Enigma, but never with the same rigor as Doenitz’s U-boats.

Turing and his crew, routinely broke the German army and air force codes, long before they could crack the German Navy’s code, such was the lack of discipline in the tradecraft of those two services. And it was tradecraft that cracked the U-boat code. As “Imitation Game” explains that routine 6 AM weather reports give today’s new code, with yesterday’s message, “All the German that you need to know is, Heil Hitler!” It is way easier to break a code if you know what is being said. This aspect of Turing’s code breaking strategy was adequately captured in the movie. My complaint deals with the “flaw” in Enigma and that it wasn’t highlighted in the movie. It would have played perfectly with the Turing persona. While the Enigma machine could freely substitute one letter for another, even changing the substituted letter again and again, it couldn’t substitute the original letter with itself. This minor flaw in Enigma was magnified by the German language, with its many words with repeated letters. German for weather is “wetter”. The two t-letters that aren’t T eliminate two, not one possible settings.

It’s Heady Stuff

She Man, Paul McCarthy, 2004

She Man, Paul McCarthy, 2004

A medical project whose goal will be to successfully transplant a human head will be launched later this year. Sergio Canavero of Turin, Italy, announced plans to form a surgical team to perform this transplant operation by 2017. Back in 2013, he gave the world its first heads up about his intentions. The placing of a head from one individual onto the body of another are called head transplants and not body transplants, primarily because of legacy naming conventions initiated in the 20th-century, when these types of transplant operations were first attempted on animals. All of those transplants failed due to immune rejection of the transplanted head by the host body. Transplant technology has significantly evolved since then, so immunological concerns are no longer deemed to be paramount. None of the 20th-century attempts ever tried to connect the transplanted head’s spinal cord to that of the host body’s, leaving those animals paralyzed from the neck down.

Canavero plans on connecting the severed spinal cords and expects the patient to gain full use of their new body. One highly experimental technique that he plans on using is to fuse the two spinal cords together using baths of polyethylene glycol, which has shown promise in aiding the fats in cell membranes to mesh together. After the two spinal cord ends have healed together, a yearlong process of physical therapy will retrain the neural pathways and teach the patient how to use their new body.

This is all very hard for me to get my head around. It seems like an idea more out of science fiction than medical science. In fact the original Star Trek TV series envisioned just such an operation in the episode, Spock’s Brain. In this episode Spock’s brain is stolen by pesky aliens and Doctor McCoy is tasked to reinstall it into Spock’s brainless body. It was one of the more mindless episodes of that TV series.

This type of transplant operation is envisioned to be performed for patients with bodies that are riddled with cancer or are suffering from a degenerative nerve and muscle disease. Typically, early adopters of such novel and radical medical procedures do not fare all that well, but volunteers are already lining up for the chance at a new body. As with any new medical procedure, ethical concerns are important to consider. This one is more fraught with danger than most. The opportunity for late-night talk show ridicule is a forgone certainty.

Soul Food Supper

Cotton Pickers, Thomas Hart Benton, 1945

Cotton Pickers, Thomas Hart Benton, 1945

The American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton painted Cotton Pickers based on notes of a trip he made to Georgia in the late 1920s. He depicted the dignity of the cotton pickers in the face of backbreaking labor and intense summer heat, rendering the dry fields and the working bodies in a sinuous, curvilinear style. For his time, Benton held progressive views on race, social relations and politics and he believed ardently that African-American history was central to the understanding of American culture. Cotton sharecropping, a system of tenant farming that developed after the Civil War, allowed landowners to rent land to poor farmers in return for a share of the crops. Because sharecropping kept agricultural laborers impoverished, it became a symbol of a racially and economically unjust system. Cotton cultivation became one of Benton’s most important subjects, especially as the rapid industrialization of the nation during World War II changed the American landscape.

Anne and I went to the annual soul food supper at the high school tonight. This event is held every February, in honor of Black History Month. This year is the 15th anniversary dinner. We’ve been going to this event ever since Dan and Dave went to school there. Tonight’s menu included: fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collard greens, mashed potatoes, candied yams, corn bread, mac & cheese, ham & beans and rounding it all out, sweet potato pie. It was all good and everyone there knew Anne’s name.

It would be as dishonest as padding the word count of a blog post and about as useful as a 401(k) for a dog, to spook chickens to lay square eggs. Any big-headed baby, who is bound for college-scholarship gravy knows that.