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Prof. Boerner's Explorations

Thoughts and Essays that explore the world of Technology, Computers, Photography, History and Family.


Archive for September 9th, 2009

Flashing back to the future: Can’t we just laugh together? This article makes some interesting proposals, derived from the experiences of Americans, including FDR, during the ‘Great Depression’ of the 1930s. Take a closer look and see if you think it has some lessons for today…

Facing the Music: An article by Morris Dickstein about what 1930s depression art can teach us about  
Source: www.theamericanschol

In Stand Up and Cheer!, a bizarre 1934 Hollywood movie remembered today mostly for the sensational performance of the five-year-old Shirley Temple, President Roosevelt appoints a Broadway impresario to his cabinet as Secretary of Amusement. His mission is to distract the public and get them to laugh, which presumably would bring the Great Depression to an end. The movie itself takes on this very task with an uneven set of musical and comedy numbers ranging from a great song-and-dance routine by Temple and hoofer James Dunn (“Baby, Take a Bow”) to an interminable sketch featuring the shuffling black comedian Stepin Fetchit and a penguin that talks like Jimmy Durante.

One of the film’s major production numbers, “I’m Laughing,” reprised toward the end by Aunt Jemima (Tess Gardella), quite literally attempts to will the nation into a better mood. But it is the finale, “We’re Out of the Red,” that goes for broke. Undoubtedly Fox Studio’s answer to Busby Berkeley’s arresting choreography and camera work at Warner Bros., this fantasia in song and dance, showing Americans on the march, prematurely celebrates the nation’s victory over the Depression. Together with its message, announced on horseback by a Paul Revere–like figure, “We’re Out of the Red” is so incoherent that it must be seen to be believed. … [MORE]

Does it always take a foreigner to give us a lesson on our government? The controversy, and by right-wing critics at that, over President Obama’s talk to school children yesterday borders on the ridiculous. He was accused of trying to indoctrinating school children to become socialists. The author of this article, by a recent emigrant to our great country, makes some excellent observations. It is only about one page and well worth the 10 minutes to read and think about it. Try it and let us know what you think…

Too Many Kooks – 

image Obama’s school speech drives the right crazy.

The Silly Season ceases to be "silly" when what passes for political debate in America turns not merely stupid or witless, but certifiably demented.

I write of the kooky reaction of many conservatives–politicians, citizens and commentators in the media–to the plan by President Obama to address the nation’s schoolchildren tomorrow. (And I write, please note, as a nonlefty libertarian who did not support Barack Obama in the presidential election.)

Obama will, as we all know, address our kids–plenty of whom need a lesson or two on the subject, since they clearly don’t get it from their parents–on the virtues of study, education and hard work. According to a White House spokesman, the aim of the speech is "to challenge students to work hard in school, to not drop out and to meet short-term goals like behaving in class, [and] doing their homework …" If anyone thinks that’s unpalatable, subversive, Commie and un-American, I’d like to meet for a duel at dawn by the skating rink at New York’s Central Park. (Pick your weapon, Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck …) … [MORE]

by Gerald Boerner

“It is not true that virtually all news in a totalitarian state is false.”
— Konrad Zuse, German engineer and computer pioneer

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
"The belief in a certain idea gives to the researcher the support for his work. Without this belief he would be lost in a sea of doubts and insufficiently verified proofs."
— Konrad Zuse, German engineer and computer pioneer

Bonus: Thought for the Day… 
“But, in terms of information theory, this is precisely where the problem lay: How were we to reconstruct reality from incomplete or false reports?”
— Konrad Zuse, German engineer and computer pioneer

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
"The rattling of the Z4 is the only interesting thing about the Zürich nightlife."
— Konrad Zuse, German engineer and computer pioneer


Konrad Zuse (1910 – 1995)

Konrad_Zuse_(1992) Konrad Zuse was a German engineer and computer pioneer. His greatest achievement was the world’s first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer, the Z3, in 1941 (the program was stored on a punched tape). He received the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring in 1964 for the Z3.

Zuse also designed the first high-level programming language, Plankalkül, first published in 1948, although this was a theoretical contribution, since the language was not implemented in his lifetime and did not directly influence early languages. One of the inventors of ALGOL (Rutishauser) wrote:

"The very first attempt to devise an algorithmic language was undertaken in 1948 by K. Zuse. His notation was quite general, but the proposal never attained the consideration it deserved."

In addition to his technical work, Zuse founded one of the earliest computer businesses in 1946. This company built the Z4, which became the second commercial computer leased to ETH Zürich in 1950. Due to World War II, however, Zuse’s work went largely unnoticed in the UK and the US; possibly his first documented influence on a US company was IBM’s option on his patents in 1946. In the late 1960s, Zuse suggested the concept of a Calculating Space (a computation-based universe).

420px-Von_Neumann_architecture.svg He started as a design engineer at the Henschel aircraft factory in Berlin-Schönefeld but resigned a year later to build a program driven/programmable machine. Working in his parents’ apartment in 1936, his first attempt, called the Z1, was a binary electrically driven mechanical calculator with limited programmability, reading instructions from a punched tape. In 1937 Zuse submitted two patents that anticipated a von Neumann architecture. He finished the Z1 in 1938. The Z1 never worked well, though, due to the lack of sufficiently precise mechanical parts. The Z1 and its original blueprints were destroyed during World War II.

World War II made it impossible for Zuse and other German computer scientists to work with scientists in the UK and the USA, or even to stay in contact with them. In 1939, Zuse was called for military service but was able to convince the army to let him return to his computers. In 1940, he gained support from the Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt (AVA, Aerodynamic Research Institute), which used his work for the production of glide bombs. Zuse built the Z2, a revised version of the Z1, from telephone relays. The same year, he started a company, Zuse Apparatebau (Zuse Apparatus Engineering), to manufacture his machines.

Z3_Deutsches_Museum Improving on the basic Z2 machine, he built the Z3 in 1941. It was a binary 22-bit floating point calculator featuring programmability with loops but without conditional jumps, with memory and a calculation unit based on telephone relays. The telephone relays used in his machines were largely collected from discarded stock. Despite the absence of conditional jumps, the Z3 was a Turing complete computer (ignoring the fact that no physical computer can be truly Turing complete because of limited storage size). However, Turing-completeness was never considered by Zuse (who had practical applications in mind) and only demonstrated in 1998.

Zuse never received the support that computer pioneers in Allied countries, such as Alan Turing, got. The Z3 was financed only partly by the DVL (Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt, i.e. German Experimentation-Institution for Aviation), which wanted their extensive calculations automated. A request by his co-worker Helmut Schreyer for government funding for an electronic successor to the Z3 was denied as "strategically unimportant". In 1937 Schreyer had advised Zuse to use vacuum tubes as switching elements, who at this time considered it a crazy idea ("Schnapsidee" in his own words).

In 1967 Zuse also suggested that the universe itself is running on a grid of computers (digital physics); in 1969 he published the book Rechnender Raum (translated into English as Calculating Space). This idea has attracted a lot of attention, since there is no physical evidence against Zuse’s thesis. Edward Fredkin (1980s), Juergen Schmidhuber (1990s), Stephen Wolfram (A New Kind of Science) and others have expanded on it.

Zuse received several awards for his work. After he retired, he focused on his hobby, painting. Zuse died on 18 December 1995 in Hünfeld, Germany, near Fulda.

[Biographical information is from the Wikipedia article on Konrad Zuse that can be found at: ]

by Gerald Boerner

"Most of all, it was a matter of money."
— William Henry Jackson, Photographer of Western United States

Bonus: Photographer’s Thought for the Day…
"’When hard pressed for time I had to make a negative in fifteen minutes from the time the first rope was thrown from the pack to the final repacking.’"
— William Henry Jackson, Photographer of Western United States

Bonus: Photographer’s Thought for the Day…
“I sought my subjects from the house-tops, and finally from the hill-tops and about the surrounding country; the taste strengthening as my successes became greater in proportion to the failures."
— William Henry Jackson, Photographer of Western United States

Bonus: Photographer’s Thought for the Day…
“Since 1873, I have been back four or five times.  I have used the best cameras and the most sensitive emulsions on the market.  I have snapped my shutter, morning, noon and afternoon.  I have never come close to matching those first plates.”
William Henry Jackson, on photographing The Mountain of the Holy Cross


William Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942)

470px-Jackson_1862 William Henry Jackson was an American painter, photographer and explorer famous for his images of the American West. He was a great-great nephew of Samuel Wilson, the progenitor of America’s national symbol Uncle Sam.

In 1866 traveling by Union Pacific Jackson reached its end, a point some hundred miles west of Omaha, where he joined as a bullwhacker a wagon train heading west to Great Salt Lake, on the Oregon Trail. In 1867 he settled down in Omaha, NE and got into the photography business with his brother Ed.

Going off for three or four days as "missionary to the Indians" around Omaha, Jackson made his famous photographs of the American Indians: Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes and Omahas.

Career as photographer

800px-Muddy_Pond_Rutland_VT_May_1861_or_1862 In 1869 Jackson won a commission from the Union Pacific Railroad to document the scenery along their route for promotional purposes. The following year, he got a last-minute invitation to join the 1870 U.S. government survey (predecessor of USGS) of the Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountains led by Ferdinand Hayden. He also was a member of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 which led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Painter Thomas Moran was also part of the expedition, and the two artists worked closely together to document the Yellowstone region. Hayden’s surveys (accompanied usually by a small detachment of the U.S. Cavalry) were annual multidisciplinary expeditions meant to chart the largely-unexplored west, observe flora (plants), fauna (animals), and geological conditions (geology), and identify likely navigational routes, so Jackson was in a position to capture the first photographs of legendary landmarks of the West.

451px-Jackson_1872 Jackson worked in multiple camera and plate sizes, under conditions that were often incredibly difficult. His photography was based on the collodion process invented in 1848 and published in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. Jackson traveled with as many as three camera-types—a stereographic camera (for stereoscope cards), a "whole-plate" or 8×10" plate-size camera, and one even larger, as large as 18×22". These cameras required fragile, heavy glass plates (photographic plates), which had to be coated, exposed, and developed onsite, before the wet-collodion emulsion dried. Without light metering equipment or sure emulsion speeds, exposure times required inspired guesswork, between five seconds and twenty minutes depending on light conditions.

800px-Hotel_Del_c1900b Preparing, exposing, developing, fixing, washing then drying a single image could take the better part of an hour. Washing the plates in 160 °F hot spring water cut the drying time by more than half, while using water from snow melted and warmed in his hands slowed down the processing substantially. His photographic division of 5-7 men carried photographic equipment on the backs of mules and rifles on their shoulders – Siouxess still made scalping – Jackson’s life experience (as military, as peaceful dealing with Indians) was welcomed. The weight of the glass plates and the portable darkroom limited the number of possible exposures on any one trip, and these images were taken in primitive, roadless, and physically challenging conditions. Once when the mule lost its footing, Jackson lost a month’s work, having to return to untracked Rocky Mountain landscapes to remake the pictures, one of which was his celebrated view of the Mount of the Holy Cross.

Later life

Jackson moved to Washington, D.C. in 1924, and produced murals of the Old West for the new U.S. Department of the Interior building. He also acted as a technical advisor for the filming of Gone with the Wind.

In 1942, he was honored by the Explorer’s Club for his 80,000 photographs of the American West. SS William H Jackson Steamship was in active service in 1945. Jackson died at the age of 99. Recognized as one of the last surviving Civil War veterans, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

[Biographical information is from the Wikipedia article on William Henry Jackson that can be found at: ]