The Funniest Screenwriter of All Time

…  is Woody Allen, according to the Writer’s Guild of America.  They recently polled their members and came out with a list of the 101 Funniest Screenplays. Allen appears on it for 7 movies, more than any other person.  Sounds about right.

A lot of his movies, though, appeared at the end of the list, so maybe they shouldn’t count for as much.  How about if we give a writer a 102 points if they’re #1, 101 points if they’re #2, and all the way down to 1 point if they’re #101?  The spreadsheet is here.  The top writers then look like this:

Writer Number Written Points Screenplays, with the number as the overall rank
Woody Allen 7 257 1. Annie Hall
60. Sleeper
69. Bananas
76. Take the Money and Run
78. Love and Death
81. Manhattan
92. Broadway Danny Rose
Harold Ramis 5 370 3. Groundhog Day
10. National Lampoon’s Animal House
14. Ghostbusters
25. Caddyshack
88. Stripes
Preston Sturges 4 174 32. The Lady Eve
35. Sullivan’s Travels
72. The Palm Beach Story
95. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Mel Brooks 3 280 6. Young Frankenstein
8. Blazing Saddles
12. The Producers
John Cleese 3 251 9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
20. A Fish Called Wanda
26. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Christopher Guest 3 192 11. This is Spinal Tap
40. Waiting for Guffman
63. Best in Show
John Hughes 3 192 33. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
45. National Lampoon’s Vacation
Ethan Coen 3 184 13. The Big Lebowski
23. Raising Arizona
86. Fargo
Joel Coen 3 184 13. The Big Lebowski
23. Raising Arizona
86. Fargo
Marshall Brickman 3 164 1. Annie Hall
60. Sleeper
81. Manhattan
Charles Chaplin 3 40 82. Modern Times
90. City Lights
94. The Gold Rush

By this points standard, Harold Ramis is the funniest writer, since his 5 movies are closer to the top of the list.   Mel Brooks also beats out Woody Allen.  On the other hand, this gives John Hughes of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” 192 points, which is way ahead of Charlie Chaplin’s 40, and that’s totally wrong.

That shows one larger problem with the list – the movies are largely from recent decades.  Chaplin’s movies are from the 30s and Hughes’ from the 80s.   Here are the numbers and movies by decade:

Decade Number Movies Screenplays
1920s 2 57. The General, 94. The Gold Rush
1930s 6 17. Duck Soup, 24. Bringing Up Baby, 38. A Night at the Opera, 47. It Happened One Night, 82. Modern Times, 90. City Lights
1940s 7 21. His Girl Friday, 32. The Lady Eve, 35. Sullivan’s Travels, 37. The Philadelphia Story, 72. The Palm Beach Story, 95. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, 97. Arsenic and Old Lace
1950s 2 2. Some Like it Hot, 96. All About Eve
1960s 8 7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 12. The Producers, 27. The Graduate, 28. The Apartment, 41. The Odd Couple, 62. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 73. The Pink Panther, 76. Take the Money and Run
1970s 15 1. Annie Hall, 6. Young Frankenstein, 8. Blazing Saddles, 9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 10. National Lampoon’s Animal House, 19. The Jerk, 26. Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 48. M*A*S*H, 49. Harold and Maude, 58. What’s Up, Doc?, 60. Sleeper, 66. Being There, 69. Bananas, 78. Love and Death, 81. Manhattan
1980s 29 4. Airplane!, 5. Tootsie, 11. This is Spinal Tap, 14. Ghostbusters, 15. When Harry Met Sally, 20. A Fish Called Wanda, 22. The Princess Bride, 23. Raising Arizona, 25. Caddyshack, 33. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 33. Trading Places, 36. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 39. Rushmore, 42. The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! , 44. Big, 45. National Lampoon’s Vacation, 46. Midnight Run, 51. Broadcast News, 52. Arthur, 67. Back to the Future, 70. Moonstruck, 74. The Blues Brothers, 75. Coming to America, 79. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 79. Lost in America, 87. My Favorite Year, 88. Stripes, 89. Beverly Hills Cop, 92. Broadway Danny Rose
1990s 18 3. Groundhog Day, 13. The Big Lebowski, 18. There’s Something About Mary, 40. Waiting for Guffman, 43. Office Space, 53. Four Weddings and a Funeral, 54. Dumb and Dumber, 56. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 61. Galaxy Quest, 65. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, 71. Clueless, 77. Election, 83. My Cousin Vinny, 86. Fargo, 93. Swingers, 99. Mrs. Doutbtfire, 100. Flirting with Disaster, 101. Shakespeare in Love
2000s 13 29. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, 30. The Hangover, 31. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, 50. Shaun of the Dead, 54. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 59. Wedding Crashers, 63. Best in Show, 64. Little Miss Sunshine, 68. Superbad, 84. Mean Girls, 85. Meet the Parents, 91. Sideways, 98. The Royal Tenenbaums
2010s 1 16. Bridesmaids

The peak decade is the 80s, which may say more about Guild writers being middle-aged Boomers rather than that being a particularly funny time.   The 50s really were a grim era for Hollywood, though, so it’s not surprising that it had only 2.

The poll rules were that the films had to be not first shown on TV, had to be more than 60 minutes long, and had to be in English.  The voters are American writers, so 94 are from the US, and the other 7 from Britain.

There are only 7 women among the 152 writers total: Nora Ephron, Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig, Anne Spielberg, Tina Fey, Tania Rose, and Amy Heckerling.   Their movies tend to be more recent, unsurprisingly.  The only black writer appears to be Eddie Murphy.

About 10 of the writers are alumni of Saturday Night Live, and 6 are members of Monty Python.  Over 10% of the funniest screenwriters in English came out of those two operations.

Overall, there are a couple of obvious biases in this list.  Still, this is what the experts in the profession think are the best.  I’ve actually seen most of these, which is not surprising given their reputation, and I can attest that, yes, these are very funny movies.   Work your way through this list and you won’t be disappointed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Human Population of Space

… is currently about six.   That is, if one adds up all the person-years spent in space by various crews, it comes to about six for recent years.  In a previous post from 2010, “The Population of Space”,  I had been wondering how much time people have actually spent in outer space.  I found that no one seems to have added it up.   So I put together a single list of all the manned space missions using the  Wikipedia article List of Human Spaceflights and merged it with Robert Braeunig’s page Manned Space Flights.  From that I was able to generate a list of all the people who have visited space and long they spent on each trip.  The results are in the tabs of this spreadsheet, Manned Spaceflight Statistics.  From there I was able to boil down the numbers to the charts below.

Here is the time spent in space by year and station:

manned_person_years The ISS dominates recent years, of course, but there was a surprising amount of time spent on Shuttle missions in the 1990s, largely because the Shuttle could carry so many people, 7, compared to any other craft.

Here are the number of visitors each year:

manned_visitorsThe numbers have dropped a lot in recent years with the retirement of the Shuttle in 2011.  Only about 12 people are going up to the ISS every year, but they’re staying for a lot longer.

The stations are:

  • Skylab: a big station put up with the last flight of a Saturn 5
  • Salyut 1-7: a series of small stations put up by the Soviets
  • Mir: A large station put up by the Soviets and occupied for 14 years
  • non-ISS Shuttle: Missions by one of the 5 US Space Shuttles.  In the 2000s the Shuttle has been almost entirely used for building the ISS, so I’ve counted  those flights in the ISS category
  • ISS: The International Space Station, a gigantic station with contributions from the US, Russia, EU, Japan, and Canada.  It’s probably the most expensive single object ever built, with a total cost of somewhere near $160 billion.   That represents about $2 billion per person-year.
  • Tiangong 1: a small station launched by China in 2011, the first in a future series.
  • Other: all the other various launches, including the suborbital ones by the X-15 and SpaceshipOne, which qualify by getting above 100 km.

Here are some stats by station:

Station Mass (tonne) Pressurized Volume (m³) First occupied Last occupied Number Flights Number visitors Total Person-years
Non Station NA NA 1961 2008 61 117 2.97
Skylab 77 320 1973 1974 3 9 1.41
Salyut 1-7 20 (for 7) 90 (for 7) 1971 1986 37 84 9.76
Mir 130 350 1986 2000 30 80 30.56
non-ISS Shuttle 68 74 1981 2009 98 575 16.79
ISS 420 916 1998 2015 81 373 67.55
Tiangong 9 15 2012 2013 2 6 0.22
Total 724 1765 1961 2015 312 1244 129.26

The ISS has more mass, volume, and person-years than all the other stations combined.

Overall, there have been 312 manned space flights carrying 1244 visitors, of whom about 2/3 (817) flew on the Shuttle.    This represents 559 individuals.   The majority of them have flown more than once.   The number of flights per person looks like this:

Number of Flights 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
By This Number of People 212 153 95 65 25 7 2

The two people with 7 flights are Franklin Chang-Diaz and Jerry Ross.

32 people have spent more than a year in space.  The top five are:

Name Number of Flights Total years in space Last there
Gennadi Padalka 5 2.41 12-Sep-15
Sergei Krikalyov 6 2.20 11-Oct-05
Aleksandr Kaleri 5 2.11 16-Mar-11
Sergei Avdeyev 3 2.05 28-Aug-99
Valeri Polyakov 2 1.86 22-Mar-95

These 5 guys represent only 1% of all astronauts, but 8% of the total person-years in space.

There have been 7 space tourists, in the sense of people who paid personally for a trip, or 10 if you also count Senators Jake Garn (flew in 1985), Bill Nelson (1985) and John Glenn (1998), who finagled trips on the Shuttle.  Charles Simonyi, a Microsoft exec, went twice.   The last tourist was in 2009, so that era may be over.  Glenn was also the oldest person ever to visit space, at 77.   Gherman Titov was the youngest at 25 in Vostok 2 in 1961.

The overall total time spent in space has been declining slightly in recent years, and the number of visitors is way off.   This is again largely because of the retirement of the Shuttle.  Also, the only manned craft currently able to reach the ISS is the Soyuz, but others are under development.   Traffic may pick up if the Chinese ramp up their own stations.  The ISS is due to be maintained until at least 2020, and probably 2024.  After that pieces of it are likely to be used in the next station.   Maybe that will be the one used when assembling the Moon and Mars missions of the 2030s.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Ceres: the Best Place in Space?

We’ve recently learned something extraordinary about the dwarf planet Ceres, something that might make it the most habitable place in the solar system outside of the Earth:

Ceres from the NASA probe Dawn, 2/19/2015

Ceres from the NASA probe Dawn, 2/19/2015

It appears to have an icy mantle 100 km thick.  That would give it more fresh water than the Earth.   It rotates fast, in only 9 hours, but it bulges  at the equator, indicating that it’s made of squishy ice instead of rigid rock.  The Herschel IR telescope has detected water vapor jetting out of certain spots.   The space probe Dawn has seen lots of shiny spots on the planet:

Occator Crater with bright spots. Vertical relief exaggerated 5XOccator Crater with bright spots a few km across. Vertical relief exaggerated 5X

They could be salt, but they’re more likely to be ice.  If so, it’s being constantly replenished from beneath, since it would sublime away into space in the relatively warm asteroid belt.  They could be cryo-volcanoes, oozing ice instead of lava.  It may even have a liquid underground ocean, one that has been freezing slowly over the giga-years, but is sometimes squeezed up to the surface by pressure from an expanding ice shell.

So Ceres might have a lot of accessible water, which is the most basic requirement for life.   It’s also the most basic requirement for space travel, since with water and electricity you can make rocket fuel out of O2 and H2.    Ceres is still close enough to the sun that it has lots of solar power, although it’s 7X dimmer than in Earth orbit.   Yet that also means that it gets much less dangerous radiation from solar storms.   Its surface area is the same as the land area of India, so there’s lots of room.  The spectrum of its surface is like that of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites (which makes it a C-type asteroid), so it has lots of organic compounds.  With organics, water, and sunlight, it’s possible to actually grow things.

It has a low gravity, only 0.03 G.  That’s probably too low for long-term human health, but no one really knows how much we need.   It’s still better than the zero-gee that orbital stations like the ISS have to deal with.  Zero-gee is clearly bad for us, and is a nuisance in general, since plumbing doesn’t work and bits of gunk float into everything.   The Russian Mir space station  ultimately became uninhabitable due to mold, since it was impossible to clean everything.  The smell was apparently hideous.   Even a little gravity would make it much easier to wash things down.  If 0.03G really is too low, one could possibly build centrifuges, at least for sleeping in.

Yet the low gravity is a plus if you want to actually do things in space.  It makes it much easier to get on and off of Ceres compared to the Moon, Mars, or the moons of Jupiter.   The effort to get away from a body is defined by its escape velocity, or delta-vee, and the size of a rocket goes up exponentially with delta-vee.  [To be exact, the Tsiolkovsky ideal rocket equation says that mass_rocket = mass_payload * e ^ (delta-vee / exhaust_velocity).]  It takes gigantic multi-stage rockets to get away from the Earth, with its delta-vee of 11.2 km/sec.  It’s still huge for Mars at 5.0 km/sec.  For the Moon at 2.4 km/sec it took half the mass of the LEM to get away.  For Ceres it’s only 0.5 km/sec.   You could get into orbit around Ceres with only an 0.24 km/sec (540 mph) push, and thereafter use a tremendously efficient ion thruster in order to travel around the solar system.   This is what Dawn itself used.  It needed only 385 kg of xenon propellant to move the 1200 kg (initial) probe from Earth all the way to Vesta and then Ceres, although it did use a Mars gravity assist.

Ceres could be a base for asteroid mining.   X-type meteroids are solid metal, and have high proportions of valuable elements like platinum.  The company Planetary Resources is already working on this, although they’re targeting Earth-crossing asteroids.  Ceres itself might be able to export water and organics to LEO, the Moon, or Mars orbit.  It’s a lot easier to bring it down than to bring it up.

So let’s compare Ceres to various other places people might live in the solar system:

Low Earth Orbit Has no physical resources, no gravity, no radiation or meteoroid shielding.  Does have more solar power and is a lot closer.
Moon Has practically no water or organics and has a deeper gravity well.   Isn’t too far away.
Mars Deep gravity well, a long way away, and there’s a risk of contamination by Earth microbes. Does have more scientific interest because of the possibility of life
Venus Hellishly hot surface and an atmosphere of sulfuric acid makes it utterly uninhabitable.   Even probes only last for minutes. Does have good gravity.
Jovian Moons Really deep gravity well, no solar power, bad radiation levels.  Could be life on Europa.
Kuiper Belt Objects Several billion miles away. Are likely to have water and organics, and would have no radiation hazard. Karl Schroeder uses them as interstellar stepping stones in his striking novel “Lockstep”.

It’s not all that promising a list! Space colonization is a terrible idea in general, but if you’re going to have some self-sufficient manned space bases, Ceres might be one of the best places to go.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

SF Fail #1 – Bionics

Science fiction has failed in many ways, but I was reminded of one of its more egregious lapses, bionics, just the other day.   I was talking to a coworker who turned out to be an Extropian.  We don’t get many creationists in Massachusetts, but we do get their opposites like this guy.

We were talking about medical wearables, as one does these days.  The electronics for body sensors have gotten so cheap and low-power that they can be scattered about to track all kinds of health measures.  They’re pretty bad today, as witness the problems with smart watch heart rate monitors.   These attempt to measure your pulse by shining an LED through the skin to see blood flow.  Everything disrupts the signal: movements of muscles, perspiration, saturation of the sensor.  Plus the light won’t shine through dark skin, so it’s not just inaccurate – it can be racistly inaccurate.  Great.

Anyway, we were discussing all this when he said “You know, the real answer is to get rid of this meat altogether.”   He plucked at his forearm.   “We’ve got to get out of this weak stuff.”  Oh?  “Machines are obviously what we’ll be in the long run.  Maybe it won’t be in my lifetime, but it’s got to happen eventually.”

He’s thinking of pictures like this:

Model/athlete Aimee Mullins and MIT prof and climbing champion Hugh Herr

Model/athlete Aimee Mullins and MIT prof and climbing champion Hugh Herr

Superhumanly attractive people with superhuman physical abilities.  Mullins lost her legs due to a birth defect, and Herr lost them to frostbite while trapped during a mountain storm.  Both were competitive with able-bodied athletes, and Herr has been steadily improving prosthetics at the MIT Media Lab.  They sure look like the next generation.

But perhaps the obvious bears repeating:

No artificial replacement of a body part is as good as the healthy original, including teeth and hair.

Dentures stop fitting and wear out.   Toupees are causes of mockery.   Artificial hearts need horrific operations and only help until a transplant can be found.   Artificial limbs don’t join properly with the natural limb and are never as controllable.   They’re just about at the point where they can make a decent ankle.   They’re getting there with knees.    Hands?  Tongues?  Eyes? Nowhere near.

Your existing organs are almost certainly older than any machine you own.   They have a huge advantage over any artificial version – they can repair themselves.   No machine can reproduce itself – it takes an entire industrial system to do that.

That’s not going to change.   Forget about 3D printers that can reproduce themselves – they can’t even make their own motors, much less their chips.   Machines use a far wider range of the periodic table than any organic system, because organics have to rely on what can be eaten in the local environment.  Machines can use trade networks that span the planet.  It’s always going to be easier to make something with central, specialized equipment than it is to put some kind of universal fabricator into every widget.

The ultimate answer to replacing failing body parts is going to be regrowing them.  This is already getting huge attention.  People have used stem cells to regrow tracheas and livers.  The new parts will be bio-compatible with the old, and not instantly attacked by the immune system.   They’ll adapt as the body changes and keep themselves in good repair.

What they won’t be is superhuman.  They’ll be better than what you have, and maybe even as good as what you had at age 20.   But becoming superhuman through mechanical parts?   An illusion.   Yet it’s one that even people in high-tech hold, thanks to the dreams of science fiction.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Finding One’s Tomorrowland Pin

“Tomorrowland” is an epic disaster of a movie, with annoying characters, a nonsensical plot, and a ridiculous premise – that the problems of the world are because people are no longer inspired by the utopias pushed by Disneyland and the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Seriously – it says that we’re depressed these days because we never did get jetpacks.

Yet there was a bit in this movie that did resonate with me – the Tomorrowland pin:


When the teenage heroine touches it, she is immediately transported to the parallel dimension that all the innovators have escaped to:

tomorrowland_wheat-fieldYes, those are amber waves of grain, purple mountains’ majesty, and an alabaster city undimmed by human tears – the ideal America right from the anthem.  Subtle this movie is not.

But I myself once saw such a pin.  Or rather, I saw an image that affected me so strongly that it changed my life’s direction.  It was in 1969, and I was a kid bicycling along a rundown commercial street.   In the midst of the pizza places and the garages and the hair salons, there was a used book store.   In its window was this:


The text at the bottom reads:
Metalliding Seventy-Five Cents
August 1969

It’s a picture of two molybdenum wires, both heated to a yellow glow at 1000C.  The one on the right has been treated with a new process called metalliding that diffused silicon into it, and so can withstand the high temperature.   The one on the left hasn’t been treated, and is oxidizing and boiling away.

At that age I didn’t know what this picture was, and couldn’t have understood the description.  It was just a serenely beautiful image.   Every other image on the street or in that bookstore was trying to sell something.   This just glowed there, like a Russian icon amidst candy wrappers.

So that’s what the technical world was like, thought my younger self.  It was a different place, a cleaner place.   Most of the paperbacks in that store had covers with girls or monsters or weapons.  This was something else.   This was the kind of world I wanted to be in.

Did you ever see such an image?   Maybe for you it was a line of poetry, or an equation, or a psalm, or a scene from a drama – something that gave you a glimpse of the world where you belonged.  Maybe it started you on a road to that world, as it did me.    I ended up in the world of engineering, where we rarely actually see things of the Zen purity of the above image.  Yet the clean solution is what we always strive for, and are proud to show off to each other.  My Tomorrowland pin was a magazine cover from long ago.  What was yours?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“The Affinities”: Weaponized Psychology

“What will be the next big technology?” is a question that gets constantly asked.   The answers are usually boring: smaller and more prevalent computers, some new energy source, some advance in space tech, or maybe something will finally happen with AI.

Yet there’s a different trend that holds more interest.  As time goes on, more and more complex subjects can be understood and handled.   By complex I mean subjects that need concentrated and theoretical study, not just empirical tinkering.   All technology was empirical until the 19th century.   Then people started to use real physics – theories of heat, motion, and light – in their engines and electrical equipment.   By the 20th century we advanced to the much more complex fields of chemistry (plastics, semiconductors) and biology (medicines that were at last effective, serious crop breeding).

So now in the 21st century we’re coming up on understanding really difficult areas like psychology and sociology.   These are far harder to do experiments on, and contain such a mixture of underlying causes that teasing them apart is far trickier.

affinities cover

Click for author site

Which brings us to Robert Charles Wilson‘s new SF novel, “Affinities”.   He’s had a long and solid career, and won the Hugo for his novel “Spin” in 2005.  Here he proposes that in the near future scientists will actually understand what makes people trust and cooperate with each other.  They found a company, InterAlia, that puts candidates through a series of psychological and genetic tests to find out what group, or affinity, they belong to.  There are said to be 22 such natural groupings, which cover about 60% of the population.   Once they find out yours, they assign you to a weekly meeting of your affinity.  You pay for the testing and then an annual subscription fee.

The protagonist, Adam, comes from a quite dysfunctional family.  His father despises him as a weakling, and favors his jock older brother.   He won’t cover the cost of college for Adam’s artistic ambitions, but his grandmother sneaks him the money and he moves away to attend school in Toronto.   He’s rather lost and lonely in the strange city, and so signs up with InterAlia.

Meanwhile his beloved grandmother falls sick.   His father gets power of attorney and immediately cuts him off, saying the money is needed for her medical expenses.    He returns to Toronto, but doesn’t know what to do now that he can’t afford school or even an apartment.

In this state of anger and anxiety he attends the first meeting of his affinity.  There’s an instant connection.  Finally, people who understand him!   He has found his tribe.   One of them knows another member who has a graphic design firm downtown, and needs an assistant.    There’s always a spare room where he can stay.  A girl with dark hair and deep eyes takes an immediate interest in him.   In the course of an evening he finds a job, a house, and a romance.

His particular affinity is called Tau, and covers the casual and creative types.  Others prefer more hierarchy and discipline.   InterAlia’s system is like a Big Data version of Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, where instead of the rather arbitrary axes of feeling/thinking, introversion/extroversion, intuition/sensing, and perception/judging, the categories are extracted from data on millions of individuals.

Tau is one of the largest and most energetic groups.   They soon organize their own insurance programs for their members, and then pension plans.    Need help with an abusive boyfriend?   Your fellow Taus can figure out a way to keep him away from you, with the help of a Tau cop.   Need to set something up in a new city?   The local Taus are ready to help because they trust you, and know just where to find what you need and who to deal with.

A social mechanism like this is far more important than a new widget.  Almost anything worth doing needs the cooperation of a large group of people.   Maintaining a common purpose among factions gets harder and harder as the group grows and ages.  Institutions that can overcome the natural divisions among people can take over the world.   The Church.  The university.  The joint-stock company.   The parliament.

All of these have been worked out empirically, and look creaky today.   What if there were a real theory behind these social inventions?   What if they could be tuned up in a systematic and optimum way?   You would go from hand-tweaked steam engines to engineered gas turbines, from locomotives to jets.

In the novel, this naturally goes wrong pretty quickly.    Which of the 22 affinities is going to be dominant?   The Taus are fast and clever, but they lack the killer instinct.  What happens to the people who don’t belong to any affinity?   What happens when one’s loyalty to the group conflicts with that to your actual family?  And what happens when this technology marches on, as they always do?

The characters here are vivid and the plot is engaging, but let me recommend this novel for that most SF of qualities – extrapolation.  The future doesn’t belong to better widgets – to jetpacks and Mars bases and phones that interface directly to your retinal and auditory nerves.   That’s 20th century physical thinking.  The future is mindware, baby; it’s cognitive engineering.   Get a million people working together effectively, and a Mars base is a side-effect.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The History of Computing in Lego

The family and I were just at Legoland San Diego, which was big fun.  It’s a cheery small theme park filled with LEGO creations, and with boxes of the blocks everywhere for the kids to create with.   Yet in this networked age, you can always find someone somewhere who takes things to astonishing and intimidating levels.  Here’s a bitmap display built solely out of bricks:

Lego bitmap display by AncientJames

AncientJames’ Lego bitmap display.  Click for site

It uses that little board to specify which disks to flip on the display, where the white cones specify the position of white disks.   A stack of the boards can spell out a message one letter at a time on the 5×5 matrix.    Here it is in operation:

Spelling out Everything Is Awesome!   That song was inescapable at Legoland.

This was done by someone in New Zealand, which is clearly a country of ingenious people with a lot of time on their hands.  It’s like the Jacquard Loom of 1801, which took punch cards and used them to direct the weaving of a piece of cloth.  That was the first real piece of computing technology, incorporating stored memory and a means of output.

So can Lego take one to the next level of computing?  But of course:

Back Camera

Andrew Carol’s Lego Difference Engine.  Click for site

This is several cells of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 of 1849, as built by Andrew Carol.   Here it is computing the squares of the first several integers:

If you want to learn more about the Engine, you can’t do worse than to pick up Sydney Padua’s just-released graphic novel about Lovelace and Babbage:

Lovelace and Babbage, Padua

Click for her site

Their actual lives came to depressing ends, but in this better world, this odd couple joined up for excitement and adventure.

Now, can Lego actually take one to the first full computer, ENIAC?

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

Almost certainly not.  ENIAC had about ten thousand gates, so many that it was barely reliable enough to function when using electronics, never mind mechanical parts.   Electronics also have the great advantage of having gain elements, which is so hard to do with mechanics that Babbage himself never accomplished it.

Still, a computer can be built with as few as two hundred transistors, if they implement the Subtract-contents-of-address-A-from-contents-of-address-B-and-branch-if-negative single instruction architecture.   I’m sure that someone somewhere is working on a LEGO version now!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment