Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, December 3, 2022

OpenAI's Chatbot on Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin"


I'm a fan of this classic silent movie, and wondered what the computer banks behind OpenAI might say about it. My prompt to the ChatbotGPT: "Analyze the significance of the motion picture Battleship Potemkin to Russians under the Putin regime"

Chatbot's answer: 

The motion picture "Battleship Potemkin" holds significant significance in Russia under the Putin regime in 2022 due to its portrayal of revolutionary ideals and the struggle against oppression. In a time when political opposition is heavily suppressed and the government exercises strict control over media and information, the film's message of rebellion and resistance resonates with those who seek change and freedom.

Furthermore, the film's depiction of the 1905 mutiny on the Potemkin serves as a reminder of the power of the people to rise up against injustice. This message is particularly relevant in a country where corruption and human rights violations are widespread, and where the government often ignores the voices and needs of its citizens.

Additionally, "Battleship Potemkin" serves as a reminder of Russia's rich cultural and artistic history, and its ability to produce powerful and impactful works that continue to inspire and inspire generations. In a time when the government often promotes a narrow, nationalist narrative, the film serves as a counterpoint and a reminder of the country's diversity and creativity.

Overall, "Battleship Potemkin" holds significant significance in Russia under the Putin regime in 2022 due to its portrayal of revolutionary ideals, its reminder of the power of the people, and its celebration of Russia's rich cultural and artistic heritage.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Writers' Walls

What do writers hang on their walls? Here are two items on my office wall, along a profile of our cat, who looks like he's checking for dust on the frame. 

These are two of six illustrations by Paul Breeden for my first article in Smithsonian Magazine, "Engineers Versus the Eons," March 1984. 

Paul's Facebook is linked here.  

My article speculated on what would happen to three great American structures if civilization collapsed and they were abandoned to the ages, as the Ancient Wonders of the World were. The painting on the right depicts the South World Trade Center tower having collapsed due to rusting in the basement. 

That was based on an interview I had with Les Robertson, the WTC's chief structural engineer. He said that, assuming failure of the PATH tunnels or heat exchanger lines allowed the basement to flood with brackish water from the Hudson, those massive steel columns would rust and eventually fail. 

I explained it this way: "Rust is nature's way of returning steel to iron ore by combining it with oxygen. Oxygen is richest at the tidal zone, where water rises and falls daily."

The illustration on the left imagines a collapse of the Gateway Arch following a tornado. The Arch's engineers told me that a break would most likely happen at the 300-foot elevation, where the concrete-stiffened lower section of the structure meets the stainless-steel-only, hollow upper section. After hundreds of years of no maintenance, corrosion of the stainless steel would grow into cracks, making a weak point. 

Friday, November 4, 2022

More experiments with DALL-E-2: Outpainting

This gives an idea of how the Outpainting tool can add a lot to the AI's initial square image. 

The original, in the center, was from my prompt asking for an underground spaceship-repair station. 

It's important to update the description in the prompt line when asking DALL-E for side images -- you want something that's related to the initial image, but different enough to be interesting. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Old Meets New: Feeding ViaVoice speech-to-text into DALL-E-2

Circa 1999, when our boys were in school, we discovered that the iMac could turn speech into text. And the achievement was amazing, in a primitive sort of way. The iMac was a sluggish computer by today's standards, and IBM's ViaVoice program was freestanding, using only the algorithms stored on floppy disks, with no access to online algorithms.

We took turns reading aloud sections from The Three Musketeers, Tom Swift, and The Boxcar Children to see what would happen. 

ViaVoice made a heroic effort. A 1994 IBM factsheet claimed its software could render speech with complete accuracy. Well, no. It did turn out authentic words, and sometimes the sentences were grammatically correct, but the meaning rarely carried through.

Fed a line about somebody liking to eat ice cream, ViaVoice returned with "Islam is a beautiful blue dream."

We liked that phrase, and lately I fed it into DALL-E-2. Here's the result of the computers' unlikely partnership:

Saturday, October 15, 2022

DALL-E-2: Weird and somewhat wonderful

Some thoughts on the AI image generator DALL-E-2 ...  While not a substitute for a professional artist, it's good for working out ideas, and for illustrating books for one's grandkids. 

Results were the most interesting when it struggled with my text prompt.  

When I asked for a giant mech embracing the Statue of Liberty, it substituted the mech for Lady Liberty instead:

It likes to make sunbeams, even when I didn't ask for them, as when rendering a mech in the harbor:

When I asked for a mech in the pose of The Thinker, it plugged in a despairing superhero guy. Was it thinking of Ozymandias?

When I asked for a city park in the evening, it came up with a statue of a floppy sea creature, and cut off the bottom third of the image:

This eerie result after asking for a whale pulling a boat under a full moon:

More to come!

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Novels Written by Experts: Reviewing The Ransom Drop


Finished a fascinating novel by Rob Phayre, The Ransom Drop, narrated on Audible. 

I'm not sure there's an elite category for "procedural" thrillers written by expert practitioners. If so, Ransom Drop would fit in that category. Author Phayre was a lead consultant in arranging for thirty ransom deliveries in and around Somalia. 

The novel narrates the seizure of Hibernia III, a supertanker chartered to carry gasoline and other petroleum products to Mombasa, Kenya. 

Ransom Drop, unlike the typical thriller that paints antagonists in simple tones of evil, offers a close view of life in the Somali beachfront village that serves as the pirates' base. Phayre manages to get the reader to regard them with some empathy, while also making it clear that piracy poses great danger to people and the ocean environment. Even if nobody is killed in the process, it corrupts the economy, wastes resources, and traumatizes the hostages. 

Unlike the authors of thrillers who work mainly from news articles or their imagination, and would quickly pass over how an emergency response team acquires cash, equipment, and weapons, Ransom Drop walks the reader through every detail. For example: assembling a pallet-load of fresh currency and shifting it from a bank in Athens to a bizjet at the city airport takes days of paperwork and the efforts of many people, including a "cash in transit" firm that is bonded and insured to move such sums a few miles here or there. We learn about the precautions the shipowner's team takes to see that the pirates fulfill their part of the deal: freeing hostages, ship, and cargo. 

We see into the psychological tactics that negotiators use to move the dealings forward while not giving up too much. All this is done under the eyes of a lawyer for the shipowner's insurance firm. We can hope pirates don't take up Phayre's book -- they'd probably learn some things. 

While very little is left out of the process, Phayre does mention without elaborating that the families of the hostages, if they take advantage of press coverage, can interfere with the steps being taken by shipowner, response team, and insurance company. Families and reporters are not part of the ensemble of this book.

Phayre does combine past and present. The narrative appears to be set partially in the present, given the references to some present-day technology. But it also reaches into the past, presenting this hijacking as the first one along the Somali coast. The pirates have to learn how to board a supertanker and subdue its crew with only three fighters; and the response team has to figure how to deliver hundreds of pounds of cash without something going wrong.

Know Your Adversary: Another Lesson from World War II

Sun Tzu advised leaders to know the enemy as well as they know themselves. It’s sound advice … so sound that it’s rarely taken. 

Lesson from World War II:  Besides Mein Kampf, one opportunity to see into the enemy’s goals and fears before the war was a German book called Germany Prepares for War (1933), laying out its propaganda case for aggression. Another harbinger of events was the German and Japanese reaction to a set of books by the American expatriate Homer Lea. Two decades before World War II, Lea predicted the general outlines of the war along with weaknesses in American and British defenses. 

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, American air war planners identified targets across the Reich, using documents drawn up to support industrial loans. The British used their own research efforts when organizing hundreds of deception operations. These shielded Allied efforts, wasted the enemy’s effort, and exploited weaknesses among the Axis. One of the most interesting was a plan dubbed “Headache for Der Fuerher,” which used faked communications to force the recall of a highly effective commander of a Panzer division in North Africa. The British did this by making the Gestapo believe that a disgraced German officer was sending secret, conspiratorial messages to the commander the British had targeted for removal. 

Fortunately for people today who take Sun Tzu’s advice seriously, adversaries still reveal their agendas in books, articles, or speeches. Often these are written early in their careers, before they gain power. Or they are written by others. Jihadists swear by Sayyid Qutb’s Signposts and Abdel Salam Faraq’s Neglected Duty

Those who wonder about Vladimir Putin’s plans should read his biography of 2000, Ot Pervogo Litsa: Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym (“From the First Person, Vladimir Putin”). And even before that book and before taking power, back in graduate school, Putin wrote that he wanted to build a new empire founded on controlling access to energy, with a strong authoritarian figure at the center. The Caucasus is an energy corridor (what World War II theorists in logistic science called a “center of gravity”) and therefore is critical to that plan. To put a measure on Putin’s ambition, think of Peter the Great. His biography describes the significance of the Great Patriotic War in his family background, and his love of martial arts training (called sambo).