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Archive for the ‘inventions’ Category

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), an American businesswoman, was the first self-made Black American millionaire – and the first American woman too of any race according to the “Guinness Book of World Records”. She sold hair care products to black women, most notably the hot comb, which made straightened hair common among black women in the early 1900s.

She did not invent the hot comb. It had been invented in Paris in the 1800s at a time when Egyptian hairstyles were in fashion. Sears was already selling them to white women in America in the 1880s. But it was Walker who sold them to black women as an easy way to straighten their hair (though even she first used it to help hair grow rather than to straighten it).

She was born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana, across the river from Vicksburg, two years after the slaves were freed. Times were hard: yellow fever killed her parents, the Klan burned down her school, by age ten she was working picking cotton, by age 20 her husband was dead and she had a baby girl to take care of (A’Lelia Walker, who later became a figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s).

She moved to St Louis where her brother lived and worked as a washerwoman. As little money as she made, she still saved some of it to give her daughter the education she never had.

Then her hair began falling out. She tried all kinds of hair care products to make her hair grow back, but none of them worked. Some of them even made it worse!

In 1904 at the St Louis world’s fair she saw Margaret Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington. Her hair was so thick and healthy! She wanted hair just like that.

That night she prayed, asking God to stop her hair from falling out. Then she had a dream: she was in Africa and a man was showing her the things she needed to make something that would help her hair to grow back.

That is how she tells it. Some say she had a pharmacist tell her what was in the hair grower of Annie Malone, a forerunner of Walker’s. At the time Walker was selling Malone’s hair care products door to door. She later modelled her company on Malone’s. (Some say Malone was the first black millionaire.)

In any case she moved to Denver soon after her brother died to be near his family. She spent nights working on her hair growing formula until she got it right. It came out in 1905. She called it Wonderful Hair Grower. It proved to be such a hit that other products soon followed and she started hiring saleswomen, training them in the  use of her products.

The rest is history: in time she built a factory in Indianapolis and moved to Harlem.

Her name comes from her third husband, newspaperman Charles J. Walker, her husband at the time she went into business.

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The following is based on part four of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about metals, alchemy and the rise of chemistry.

Man first used fire 400,000 years ago. It kept him warm, cooked his food, kept away wild animals. But he did not learn to use it to get the metal hidden in stone till -5000 somewhere in Persia or Afghanistan: put a certain green stone in the fire and out came a red, liquid metal: copper

Copper was the plastic of its day, an almost universal material that you could shape into anything. But copper had one drawback: it was too soft. It could not keep an edge; it would wear out too quickly.

By -4000 someone made a surprising discovery: if you add tin, an even softer metal, it made a new metal that was much stronger than either one: bronze. An impure metal, an alloy, is stronger than a pure one.

By -1500 the Hittites in what is now Turkey knew how to make and work iron, which requires a much hotter fire.

By -1000 people in India knew how to make steel from iron and carbon. It was used in swords but it was so hard to make that it did not become common till the 1800s.

And then there was gold. It was not terribly useful, but in a world that is constantly changing and falling apart, it stayed the same: wind and rain could not make it rust and fire could not destroy it but only make it purer. In every age and every city it is prized above all the rest.

By 100 in China the alchemists tried to make gold out of more common materials. After hundreds of years of trial and error they failed. But along the way they learned quite a bit about the stuff that makes up the world: the chemical elements.

In the 1700s alchemy became a proper science, chemistry. That was the work of three men in the West: Priestley, Lavoisier and Dalton:

  • Priestley discovered oxygen. It was because people did not know about oxygen that they thought fire was material, like air or water. Fire is not material – it is a process that takes other materials apart and puts them back together in new ways.
  • Lavoisier ran Priestley’s experiments but carefully weighed everything before and after, even the air. He found that elements like mercury and oxygen always go together in certain proportions – it was not just a matter of chance. That was true for any substance that could be broken down into simpler substances.
  • Dalton took Lavoisier’s numbers and asked “Why?” That is the essence of science: ask an impertinent question and you are on the way to the pertinent answer. Dalton’s question led him, in 1803, to discover that everything is made of atoms.

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The following is based on part three of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about architecture and the rise of cities:

One of the biggest steps in the ascent of man was the rise of the stone mason. Instead of living in caves or houses made of earth, man built his house out of wood and stone and brick. It might seem like a small change but in fact it was huge:

  1. It marks a new understanding of nature: that it is something you can take apart, understand and then put back together in new ways.
  2. It allowed the rise of cities: not just physically by providing the necessary buildings but also by giving a new understanding of human society as something made of parts working together.

A city is made up of people who work together in certain ways. In particular:

  • division of labour: a man doing one sort of work his whole life and becoming very good at it, perhaps even coming up with new inventions. Not just the masons but other craftsmen too like potters, coppersmiths and weavers.
  • chain of command: which allows a city or a people to act as one and achieve things for the greater good, like the control of water by irrigation. Information comes into a commander or ruler at the centre and comands flow out. For it to work you need roads, bridges and messages.

When the Incas fell to the Spanish in 1532 they were at just this stage. Their civilization was cut short before it came up with the wheel, the arch or even writing. They kept records on knotted strings called quipu, but it recorded only numbers not words.

The Greeks, despite their great love of geometry, never came up with the arch. That was a Roman invention. By spreading the load it allowed columns to hold up more weight or be spread farther apart. The Roman arch and later the Arab one were based on the circle.

A thousand years later in the 1100s came the Gothic arch, the oval or pointed arch of the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. By spreading the load even farther than the Roman arch, buildings could rise to 40 metres. And since the arches, not the walls, were holding up the building, it made possible huge stained glass windows.

The Gothic arch was the last big breakthrough in architecture till the 1800s with the rise of buildings made with steel frames.

Man built Gothic cathedrals not because he suddenly needed huge, beautiful churches, but because he could. Man loves to make things, so much so that he often makes them better than he has to. That in turn allows things to be used beyond their intended purpose, leading to new ways of doing things – technology.

Taking things apart and putting them back together laid the groundwork for more than just architecture and cities but also for a new understanding of nature – which in time became science.

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The Clock of the Long Now (2000-12,000) is a clock designed to keep time – hours, minutes, seconds, days, years, months – for 10,000 years. In the words of its inventor, Danny Hillis, it:

ticks once a year,
bongs once a century,
and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

long-now-clockWhen the cuckoo comes out next, in 3000, it will show the year not as “3000” but as “03000”. Because one day it will need that much space to show the year.

The Clock is an idea that took hold of Hillis in 1986 and has not let go of him since.

The clock is not built yet. Right now Hillis and others are building prototypes – smaller clocks that show how the big one will work.

The big one, the one that will last 10,000 years, will stand 20 metres tall, as tall as a building with five floors, and be in the side of a mountain in the desert land east of California. In fact, they have already bought a mountaintop for it near Ely, Nevada. They wanted a place where it almost never rains, where no one wants to live, where the trees last for 5,000 years.

Very few man-made things last more than 500 years without constant care and upkeep. The Clock is no different. But to last 10,000 years it will have to designed a certain way:

  • It must not be made of anything anyone would want to take.
  • It must be clear how it works without taking it apart – so that no one will want to (or have to) take it apart.
  • It must be powered by natural forces.
  • It must be built so that even if during a dark age people forget how to build clocks, they can understand this one and how to keep it going.
  • It must keep time for 10,000 year without being off by more than a second.

Hillis is a computer designer. At MIT he once built a computer of Tinkertoys that could not be beaten at tic-tac-toe. So it is no surprise that the Clock of the Long Now is also a computer, one that is powered by natural forces to count and add seconds, over 300 billion of them. And, at the same time, keep track of where the sun is in the sky, of leap centuries, all of it.

The Clock will show time according to the Gregorian calendar, the one currently used in the West – but which may no longer be in use in 10,000 years! It will also show where the sun is against the stars and the waxing of the moon. It will use light from the sun at noon to keep it from running too slow or too fast.

It was Hillis’s friend, the musician Brian Eno, who came up with the name. Stewart Brand (“The Whole Earth Catalog”) is also taking part.

Along with the Clock will be a Rosetta stone, a new one recording 1500 of the world’s 7,000 languages (half of which will die out in the next hundred years!). Work on that is under way too.

– Abagond, 2009.

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nathaniel_wyethNathaniel Wyeth (1911-1990) is the American inventor who gave the world the plastic Coke bottle.  That was in the 1970s. Before then Coke and other soft drinks came in glass bottles, which you can still see in some places, like Greece.

plasticbottlesPlastic is lighter and does not break or burst easily. But, of course, it does not easily return to the earth: while most of the stuff we produce can only last for up to 500 years, a plastic bottle can last for a million years! Yes. Thus recycling. The plastic bottles of New York in the landfills of Staten Island will long outlast its buildings.

Wyeth started working on how to make a plastic bottle at DuPont in 1967. It took him three years to get something that worked. At first he tried using the plastic that washing machine soap is sold in. That swells up: it is not strong enough for a soft drink, which has to be stored in a pressurized form or it will taste flat. In time he found that polyethylene terephthalate was the right sort of plastic, now also known as PET or Plastic #1.

In addition to the right kind of plastic, he was the first one to discover two tricks: he worked out how to blow the bottle and fill it in one step and, later in the 1970s, how to make the bottle in one piece, not two.

His American patent is number 3,733,309: “Biaxially Oriented Poly(ethy.ene terephthalate) Bottle”. He applied for it in 1970, it was issued on May 15th 1973.

He has other inventions too, finding ways to use plastic where metal or glass or other things were once used. Because of him cars are now partly made out of plastic!

He worked by trial and error, never giving up. His early plastic bottles looked terrible, but he said, “If I hadn’t used those mistakes as stepping stones, I would have never invented anything.” By finding out what did not work, he could find out what did.

Whenever he came up with an idea, however strange, he wrote it down on a piece of paper and put it in a box. Every now and then he would empty the box and read through them. (That is what gave me the idea for the Suggestions page on this blog!).

Wyeth got a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and went to work for General Motors, where his uncle worked.  In 1936 he came to DuPont. He worked his way up the engineering ranks and by 1963 he became its first Engineering Fellow, which meant he could work on whatever he liked. In 1976 he retired.

Wyeth grew up west of Philadelphia in a family of artists and painters. But from an early age he showed a love of machines not art, taking apart clocks to make other things.

If the name Wyeth sounds familiar that is because of Nathaniel’s far more famous brother, the painter Andrew Wyeth, who gave us “Christina’s World” in 1948, one of the most famous American paintings ever.

christinasworld

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The Google phone (2008), also known as the Android phone, the gPhone or the T-Mobile G1, is a mobile phone that is the brainchild of Google. It is Google’s answer to Apple’s iPhone. It is, in fact, the first mobile phone to go head-to-head with the iPhone.

The G1, which goes on sale in America on October 22nd 2008 and in Britain a few weeks later, is merely the first of many Android devices to come. Or so Google hopes. Samsung and LG are set to come out with Android phones of their own in 2009.

Android is the name of the software platform that Google built for mobile phones. It remains to be seen whether it will catch on in a big way: Google is not the first to try to build such a platform. Android is built in the Java language running on the Linux operating system. Linux is what the TiVo and Google itself run on.

The Android phone is not a me-too copy of the iPhone. Where the iPhone is a Mac computer shrunk down to fit in your hand, one that can make telephone calls and play music, Google sees mobile phones as Web devices – as pocket computers that can go on the Web (and see Google ads!). The thinking is that mobile phones will become one of the main ways people will go on the Web.

The G1 is a first rough cut at what Google has in mind. It is not as nice as the iPhone nor is it as easy to use, but it holds promise:

  1. Google made it easy for computer geeks to write programs for it. That means in the long run Google phones will be able to do cooler things than iPhones.
  2. Android is not tied to particular hardware, so it will be easier to get it to work on newer and better phones as they come along.
  3. It is designed to be a part of the Internet.

Unlike the iPhone, the G1 has a built-in keyboard, which you can see if you slide back the screen.

Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile G1

On top of being a mobile phone, the G1 has:

  • Google Maps with built-in GPS so it knows where you are,
  • email (but it can handle only one Gmail account),
  • instant messaging,
  • a music player (it can download music from Amazon, but it has no headphone jack! You have to buy a separate USB adapter for that),
  • a camera (that cannot zoom or record video), but no media player yet,
  • a touchscreen (that can handle only one finger at a time),
  • Wi-Fi,
  • the Web (even with a working YouTube, but no Flash).

It has no Bluetooth and there is no easy way for it to talk to your computer. But, unlike the iPhone, it can do cut and paste.

The battery only lasts 12 hours or less between charges.

The G1 runs on T-Mobile’s 3G network, which by October will be in 22 American cities.

The price: $179 (14 crowns), but you also have to sign up for two years with T-Mobile for at least $25 a month (2 crowns a month). An iPhone these days is $199 (16 crowns – way cheaper than when it first came out).

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IQ

IQ (1905- ) is short for intelligence quotient. It is a way to measure intelligence. IQs go from 0 to about 200. Most people have an IQ near 100.

To give you a rough idea of what the numbers mean in English:

0 to 70 retarded
70 to 90 dull
90 to 110 average
110 to 130 bright
130 to 200 gifted

Most maids have IQs of about 100, professors about 115 and doctors 120. To join Mensa you need an IQ of at least 130.

IQ = (mental age / calendar age) x 100

If you are over 16, then your calendar age is just 16. It does not go higher than that.

To find out your mental age you take an IQ test which compares how well you did on its questions compared to people of different ages.

So, for example, if you are ten years old but did as well on the test as an ordinary 12 year old, then your IQ is (12/10) x 100 or 120.

Or: if you are fully grown but have the mind of an 8 year old, than your IQ is 50: (8/16) x 100.

So when Steve Sailer says that ordinary black Americans have an IQ of 85 he is saying they have the mind of 13-year-olds (= 16 x 0.85). That is why he says they need “moral guidance” and why black Africa will always be in a “Lord of the Flies” mess unless it is ruled by outsiders.

On the Internet you can find terrible IQ maps of the world. I do not know where they get their numbers. Most go something like this:

  • 105: China, Korea, Japan
  • 100: Europe, Russia, North America, Australia, Argentina
  • 85: Latin America, Middle East, India, South-east Asia
  • 70: Black Africa

Yellow, white, brown and black, in that order, it seems.

If you took the SAT before 1995, the test you need to take to apply to American universities, you can get a pretty good idea of your IQ: it is about one tenth of your combined math and reading score. So if you got 550 math and 630 reading (verbal), your combined score is 1180 and your IQ is most likely somewhere near 118. That is no accident. The SAT grew out of the old IQ test that the army used.

Here are the estimated IQs of some famous people:

  • 195: Pascal
  • 190: Newton, Voltaire, Kasparov, Wittgenstein, Laplace
  • 185: Galileo, Descartes, Bobby Fisher
  • 180: Michelangelo, Lord Byron
  • 175: Kepler, Kant, Spinoza
  • 170: Plato, Luther, Raphael, Wagner
  • 165: Darwin, Hegel, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, John Locke
  • 160: Einstein, Bill Gates, Hawking, Ben Franklin, Isaac Asimov, Reggie Jackson
  • 155: Balzac, Sharon Stone, Cervantes, Rembrandt, Swift, Emerson
  • 150: Rousseau
  • 145: Napoleon, Nixon
  • 140: Hitler, Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Shakira, Jefferson, Geena Davis
  • 135: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Gore
  • 130: Jodie Foster, Lincoln
  • 125: George Bush
  • 120:
  • 115: John Kennedy
  • 110: Ulysses Grant
  • 105: James Watson
  • 100:
  • Less than 100: Andy Warhol (86), Muhammad Ali (78 )

IQs have been going up in rich countries over time, about a point every three years. This is called the Flynn Effect. No one knows for sure what causes it.

It would help if people understood just what it is that IQ tests test. It is not intelligence but something like it – whatever it is that makes some children do well in school and others do poorly. That something is not what Edison, Warhol, Picasso or Churchill had, yet no one ever doubted their intelligence after their school years.

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telephone

telephone

Woman holds a mobile phone to her ear, c. 2011

A telephone (1876- ), or phone for short, is an invention that allows you to talk to someone far away. If you both have a telephone then you can hear each other’s voices through it and talk.

To talk to someone on his telephone you must know his telephone number and put it into yours. This is called dialing the number. Your telephone then calls his telephone. His telephone rings, telling him that someone wants to talk to him. If he answers his telephone, opening the connection between the two, you begin to talk. When you are both done, most likely a few minutes later, you hang up, ending the call.

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, but it did not become common in America till the 1920s. In time each house and business had at least one. Making telephones was not the hard part – it was setting up the telephone network. All the telephones had to be connected together by lines of copper wire, called telephone lines.

A telephone uses the network to open a connection to another telephone. Then it converts your voice into something that can go through the network. When it gets to the telephone at the other end, it is converted back into your voice. The other person can then hear what you said.

Some of the sound in your voice is lost so that two people could sound alike. The sound quality is good enough for talking but not for singing.

In the 1990s mobile phones – also known as cellphones or handphones – became common. Instead of wires, they send calls through the air to a nearby tower. You can put a mobile phone in your pocket or your bag. You can call anyone almost anywhere.

Some mobile phones are now smartphones. They are pocket computers that can also go on the Internet.

When you call someone you are using a part of the network called a circuit. While the network is designed to handle thousands of calls at once, there is a limit. If everyone calls at the same time, like on 9/11, then the network will run out of circuits and you will hear a message that says, “All circuits are busy. Please try again later.”

The longer your call lasts and the longer the distance, the more of the network you are using up. The telephone company can charge you accordingly.

This way of running the network is called circuit switching. It was designed for a time before computers when human operators connected calls together on a big switchboard.

With computers you can run a telephone network the same way as the Internet using packet switching. This makes calls much cheaper, so cheap that time and distance barely matter. At first the Internet was not fast enough and good enough for telephone calls, but now it is. So in time most telephone calls will go over the Internet. Some already do.

Pictures of telephones through the years:

WesternElec51Telephone

1919: Western Electric 51AL candlestick phone

a1-B

1927: Western Electric Model 102

500p49a

1949: Western Electric Model 500

phone

1980: Western Electric Model 2500 touch-tone telephone

Nokia-3210

1999: Nokia 3210 mobile phone

iphone-4

2010: iPhone 4 smartphone

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fork

fork.jpg

The table fork (c. 950- ) is like a spoon but it has three to four tines that look like the teeth of a comb though they are longer and spaced farther apart. Forks are used in eating to pick up meat and vegetables from your plate. Westerners use forks to eat instead of fingers or chopsticks.

In the West table forks are taken for granted, but the Romans did not have them. Even after they appeared it took hundreds of years for them to catch on.

No one knows where the first fork appeared. In ancient times the Romans had large kitchen forks for cooking but as far as we know they did not use them for eating.

Table forks appeared in the Byzantine empire in the late 900s and in Italy by the 1000s. But it did not catch on in Italy till the 1300s. It was brought to France in the 1500s and to England in the 1600s. Forks were not in common use in America till the middle 1800s!

At first using forks was seen as affected and unmanly. And if you wanted to use one you had to bring your own. Only the rich used them at the start.

The first table forks were flat and had only two tines. They were used mainly to cut and eat meat. You would use the fork to hold the meat still and cut off a piece with your knife.

In England forks were flat till the middle 1700s. They did not get the third and fourth tines till the 1800s. With more tines they could be used to pick up food from your plate and be used for more than just eating meat. It was then that forks caught on in America.

Before forks came in, knives had a point at the end so you could stick them into the piece of meat you wanted to eat and put it in your mouth. When forks became common, the end of the knife became rounded.

But these these knives with the round end came to America before the fork was in general use. That meant that after cutting off a piece of meat Americans had to move their spoon from one hand to the other to pick up the piece of meat and put it in their mouth.

When Americans started using forks in the 1800s they used them like spoons. That is why Americans and Europeans use forks and knives differently. Right-handed Europeans keep the fork in the left hand when eating meat.

In the 1900s the fork gave rise to the spork – half spoon, half fork, used by the military and fast food places.

In China meat is cut up into small pieces when it is cooked. That allows chopsticks to be used instead of forks.

In much of the world fingers are still used. Those who do it say food tastes better that way.

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Sweet’N Low

Sweet’N Low (1957- ) is a sweetener made out of saccharin that comes in little pink packets. It is sweeter and cheaper than sugar and does not make you fat. But it leaves a strange, bitter, metal kind of taste in your mouth – something you do not notice if you put it in tea or coffee.

It is a white, sweet powder. It passes right through your body, which is why it does not make you fat – but neither does it make you feel full like sugar does. It can sit in a box for a long time and is not destroyed by cooking. It is safe for your teeth.

There are currently three main sweeteners in America that do not make you fat:

Sweet’N Low
1957
saccharin

Equal
1982
aspartame
(NutraSweet)

Splenda
1999
sucralose

Splenda tastes more like sugar than Equal and Equal more so than Sweet’N Low. Equal is made from aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke. Splenda is made from sucralose, which is sugar changed so that it passes through the body, just like Sweet’N Low.

None of these causes cancer according to the current science.

From 1977 to 2000 it was believed that saccharin caused cancer. When rats in Canada were fed huge amounts of saccharin some had strange growths in their bladders. It was outlawed in Canada but in America the food companies fought it, so they only had to print a health warning.

It was in those years that Equal and Splenda came out.

That was not the first time saccharin got into trouble. In 1911 it was outlawed in America, but when war came it was allowed again: sugar is hard to come by in time of war, but saccharin can easily be made from coal – a fact discovered by accident in Germany in 1879.

In 1957 Ben Eisenstadt made saccharin into Sweet’N Low. During the Second World War he ran a diner across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. The war ended and the diner failed. So he bought a tea bag making machine to sell tea in bags.

Then one day his wife complained about the mess sugar makes in a diner. That was how he came up with the idea of putting sugar in little packets. He put other things in packets too, like soy sauce. Yes, that was his idea. But he did not patent it, so he never saw any money from it.

Instead he made money by thinking of new things to put in packets. Like sea monkeys. And Sweet’N Low.

He thought he would sell Sweet’N Low mainly to hospitals and those with diabetes. If you have diabetes sugar is dangerous but Sweet’N Low is perfectly safe.

It became much huger than that: ideas of health, food and beauty changed in America in the 1960s and 1970s. Women wanted to be as thin as possible – but eat their cake too. That is how Sweet’N Low became a part of American life.

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TiVo

TiVo (1999- ) is a computer you hook up to your television that not only records the shows you ask it to, but even shows that you would probably be interested in, based on what it knows you liked in the past.

It does not need a tape like a VCR and you do not need to tell it when a show is on – it knows. Unlike a VCR, it remembers to record your shows better than you do. You watch them when you are ready.

It can look for shows not just by name but also by the names of actors or directors or keywords. It is like Google for your television.

You can watch live television too with TiVo. It lets you go backwards in a show or watch something over again in slow motion (great for ball games). If you start watching an hour show 15 minutes late, you can also jump past all the ads – something that TiVo makes easy.

Also, you do not even have to be at home to tell it to record something: you can do that through the Web.

You can also see part of the Internet with TiVo.

You can download shows from the TiVo box onto your own computer and watch them there or put them on disc.

The best thing about TiVo is that you do not find yourself wanting to watch television but there is nothing good on: TiVo has been busily recording not just the shows you want to see, but even shows you want to see but did not know it.

It does that trick by learning what you like when you tell it whether or not you liked a particular show. Like Amazon, it can compare what you like with millions of others and have a good idea of what else you might like – the stuff you would have recorded if only you knew. Because it can look at what other people with tastes like yours are watching that you are missing.

It changes how you watch television – even how you watch, say, sports. It makes television into something different.

The TiVo box, the computer part, costs $100 (seven crowns) and can save 80 hours of shows. Sometimes it can record up to two channels at once. It only works with cable or satellite television. The box for HDTV costs three times as much and can only record 20 hours of HDTV.

But for the box to work you need to be hooked into their monthly service so that it can know what is coming up on television. The service costs $12.95 a month (a crown).

Those are the American prices in December 2007, but they give you an idea.

You can also get TiVo in Canada, Mexico, Britain and Taiwan. Some have been able to get TiVos to work in Australia, South Africa and elsewhere.

TiVo runs on a Linux computer. You can even get a bash prompt, if you know what that is. This makes it a great machine for hackers who can make it do new things.

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paper

Paper (3000 BC – ) is a material for writing that comes in thin sheets. Books, magazines and newspapers are made out of paper. When I first wrote this, it was on paper.

Paper is no longer the only thing you can write on. You can also write on a computer. That makes whatever you write easy to copy, search, send and print, but it also requires having a computer. Paper is still cheaper and easier to use than a computer: you can fold it up and put in your pocket. No batteries required.

For example, right now I am writing this on paper. I have my computer with me, but I am on a packed bus and do not have enough room to use it. My little black notebook, where two-thirds of these postings get their start, does not have that drawback.

Paper has not always been made from wood.

Paper was first made out of papyrus – that is where the name comes from. Papyrus was a plant which grew along the Nile. You could make paper out of it that was easy to write and draw on. The paper was also much thicker and stronger and lasted longer than ours. It was even washable. It was the sort of paper you needed to make a scroll.

But papyrus is not good for making a codex: a book like the ones we are used to where all the pages are bound together at one end. A codex is much better than a scroll, so no one uses papyrus any more.

Parchment took the place of papyrus. It is made from animal skins, like from sheep. It is named after the city of Pergamon where it was first made. Pergamon used to have the second best library in the world. The best library in the world at the time, the Library of Alexandria, was afraid Pergamon would become the best, so they stopped papyrus from leaving Egypt. This forced Pergamon to come up with a new sort of paper: parchment.

Parchment is much thinner than papyrus so books could be smaller. But it was not cheap stuff: to make a large church Bible, for example, took 200 sheep skins!

In the 100s the Chinese found out how to make paper from wood. This is the sort of paper that we know. It did not reach the West till the 1200s. It came through Spain from the Muslim world, not as a general writing material – few knew how to write – but as something for making Korans.

With computers a new sort of paper is possible: electronic paper. Like other kinds of paper it can hold a mark and be taken anywhere – it does not need to be powered like a computer. Yet a computer can write and rewrite on it. A book made of this paper could become any book you like. You could even make this blog into a book.

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Yesterday, on August 10th 2007, I saw my first iPhone. Well, I saw one a few weeks ago from a distance across a conference room. It just looked like a black piece of plastic. But someone at work just got one and so this time I could hold it in my hands and try it out.

It still needs some work, but it is leagues beyond anything that is out there. I would get one in an instant if I had the money.

It is smaller than I imagined it. Lighter and thinner too. It looks like it does in the pictures (but without the cool backlighting, of course). When you turn it off the front turns all black.

The iPhone is slower and harder to use than I expected.

The keyboard works. Because it has one key for each letter, it is easier to use than what you get on other mobile phones. But because so many keys are in such a small space, it takes practice to hit them right. I have heard that with practice with two thumbs you can go pretty fast.

Because it uses a touch screen instead of physical keys, sometimes you have to hit a key more than once for it to work. With a physical key, once you press it down you know it is going to work: you feel it in your fingers. But with a touch screen you do not get that. You have to look on the screen to see if it worked. I have the very same trouble with bank machines.

The biggest pain in the neck I found, in the few minutes I was using it, is the spell checker. It was not clear how to stop it from changing what I wrote. Good spell checkers are not that controlling. They are friendly, not motherly. This one needs work.

I noticed that with all that touching it is easy for the glass front to get dirty looking.

It does the Web. I saw Google Maps. The way you zoom in and out with two fingers is cool and it works. But because it is coming over a mobile phone network it is slow, like it was 1995. Still, it is way better than the Web I have seen on other mobile phones: the Web looks the way it should so it is readable and usable.

The iPhone does not have GPS – it does not know where you are. I find that a bit strange: you are on a mobile phone network which knows about where you are. You would think the iPhone could use that to its advantage.

Later I was standing in line at the store. The woman in front of me had a Treo. I saw its rows of little buttons and already it was starting to look old-fashioned to me.

palm-treo-650

Palm Treo 650, circa 2006. Click to enlarge.

– Abagond, 2007.

Update (2018): Added picture of a Treo, like the one I saw.

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The Cool Machine

The Cool Machine is inside every man and every boy. It is why they build go carts and cars, computers and rockets to the moon. Not because anyone truly needed these things when they were first built, but because they were cool.

It is inside most men, but not inside most women.

Darwin and Marx cannot tell us why men build such machines. It is not about money: those who build new machines mostly go broke or lose money: no one needs or wants them at first. And it is certainly not about getting women: just think about the sort of men who are best at it. What do you think they do on a Saturday night?

It is as if way back in time, like maybe back in the days of Atlantis or something, there once was the Cool Machine that even now is still half-remembered in the hearts of men.

It is like a man born on a desert island who has never seen a woman, not even a picture of one. He would still want a woman but he would have no idea what one looked like. It is the same way with the Cool Machine: men want to build one, but they have little idea what it is like.

If you look through the notebooks of Leonardo you see all these pictures of not just machines, but also horses, birds and water. What are they about? The Cool Machine. He felt it but could not see it. His notebooks show his steps through the dark towards it.

When men build a machine, they are building something that is inside them. Just as a musician creates something that comes from inside.

What will it be like? I feel it inside me but I cannot see it. Here is my first attempt at a description:

  • It is fast.
  • It is a thing of beauty.
  • It works smoothly and with grace.
  • It has a smooth skin.
  • It is like your second skin – it does what you want so well that it feels like a part of you.
  • To a degree it has a mind of its own, but in a way that helps you, not in a way that works at cross-purposes.
  • It makes a low sound when it is running.
  • It lets you see new things or old things in a new way.
  • An ordinary person can change it and work on it.

Some car ads are really not about a car, but about the Cool Machine. Just as other ads are really about sex.

Cars, ships and aeroplanes are the nearest thing we have to the Cool Machine, the closest we can get with the present state of knowledge. But they are only baby steps on the way to something way cooler and better.

If mankind lasts long enough then one day the Cool Machine itself will be built. Men will not be able to stop themselves.

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email

Email (1966- ) is short for “electronic mail”. It is mail that is sent from one computer to another instead of by post. It is sent through a network, most commonly the Internet. No stamps required.

The first email was sent by 1966. By the 1980s it had spread to American universities. In the 1990s email had spread to the general public. Along with the Web, it helped to spread the Internet throughout America and all over the world.

Better than the post office: it is much cheaper and faster. And you do not have to find a stamp.

Better than the telephone: Even when most people have a mobile phone it is not always easy to get someone. Most telephones do let you to leave a message, known as voicemail, but in practice the message cannot be much more than 20 words. And listening to voicemail can be a pain in the neck when it contains something you have to write down anyway: you have to play the voicemail over and over again to make sure you got it right.

Email allows you longer message. It also allows you to write when it is good for you and for the other person to read it and answer it when it is good for him. This is the huge advantage of email.

But email has drawbacks too.

The first drawback is length. Although you could email a whole book if you wanted, in practice few will read more than 100 words of your email and they will only remember one point you made.

A good email makes one point only and is a paragraph or two long. The subject line and the first sentence has to make that point. Any other words you add beyond that only matter to the degree that they help to make that point.

That makes email more like an advertisement or even the beginning of a newspaper article. People think of it as a short letter. Wrong.

The second drawback is spam: unwanted email from people you do not know trying to sell you something or trick you out of your money. Email almost died in 2003 under the huge wave of spam that appeared then, but now they have computer programs that can learn to tell the difference between spam and ordinary email.

The last drawback of email is that it requires a computer to read and answer it. For most of us that means being at home or at work. You cannot very well stick your computer in your back pocket and read and answer your email just anywhere.

Well, as it turns out, you can: that is part of what a BlackBerry or an iPhone is. In 2007 they still cost too much for most people, but by the 2010s they should be cheap enough. So this disadvantage will pass away.

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