Thursday, August 30, 2007

Faster Calculating

Computer pioneer John W. Mauchly was born on this day in 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio.

John Mauchly was an obscure professor of physics --in fact, he was the whole physics department at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania -- who was best known locally for his entertaining "Christmas lectures" on basic physical principles, illustrating Newton's laws with skateboards and bringing spectroscopic principles to bear on finding out the contents of Christmas gifts wrapped in colored cellophane.

His avocation, however, was weather prediction, and when he wasn't teaching Physics 101 to pre-med students he was writing papers on the effect of solar activity on rainfall patterns. His sticking point, however, was that the mathematical analysis required to support his theories required a better, faster calculating machine than he had ever encountered.

Believing electronics to be the answer after a visit to Iowa to see the pioneering work of John Atanasoff, in 1941 Mauchly enrolled in a U.S. War Department- sponsored "defense training in electronics" course at Penn, where he met Pres Eckert, a recent graduate from the Penn electronics department. Together they discussed the possibility of designing an electronic calculating machine, which culminated in Mauchly's proposal for defense funding, "The Use of High-Speed Vacuum Tube Devices for Calculation." The government bit on the concept, needing faster calculators to calculate ballistic missile trajectories, and in 1943 Mauchly and Eckert began work on the ENIAC -- the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.

As they built the 30-ton behemoth, they had to figure out not only how to coordinate the activities of 18,000 vacuum tubes, but they had to find wire that rats would not eat. Ultimately ENIAC was used for 8 years on hydrogen bomb problems and calculation of Russian weather patterns.

Next, Mauchly and Eckert began to work on the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Computer), a stored-program machine, but mathematician John von Neumann grabbed the reins of the project and Mauchly and Eckert got into a dispute with Penn over the ownership of their designs; so in 1948 Mauchly and Eckert formed their own company, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, to commercialize computers. They built the UNIVAC I, which they sold to such firms as Prudential and A.C. Nielsen (as well as the U.S. Census Bureau) for a price of $150,000 each, but they were cash poor and sold out to Remington Rand, the typewriting company, in 1950, which in turn sold out to Sperry in 1955.

Having demonstrated that there was a market for large-frame computers, their much better financed competitor, IBM, began to pour its resources into the opportunity, eclipsing the success of Mauchly and Eckert's UNIVAC. Mauchly and Eckert, however, had shown the world that electricity could be used to solve mathematical problems and produced the first commercial electronic digital computer.

Mauchly died on January 8, 1980.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Exile in France

Childeric III, known as "Childeric the Lazy," King of the Franks (743-deposed 751), the last of the Merovingian kings of France, died on this day in 755 in a monastery near St. Omer, France.

In modern times France has been generous to deposed rulers of other countries, giving shelter to such characters as the Shah of Iran and Bebe Doc Duvalier, among others, after their ignominious defeats, in varying degrees of faroukian splendor. Such generosity has not generally been given to France's own, however, as the French Revolution amply proves.

Even before that, Childeric III learned this lesson first-hand. Childeric III became king of the Franks in 743, during the end of a period marked by the relative weakness of the kings' authority as compared to the power wielded by mayor of the palace in Paris. While the exact political reasons are obscured by history (although Childeric's sobriquet may provide at least a germ of an answer), mayor Pepin the Short asked Pope Zacharias for permission to sack Childeric III and take over the Frankish throne. Permission was granted, and Pepin confined Childeric to a monastery in the south, where one assumes he did not stroll around jauntily in caviar-stained silk shirts.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Fly Went By

Marshall "Mike" McClintock, author of one of my favorite childhood-era books, A Fly Went By (first published in 1958), was born on this day in 1906 in Topeka, Kansas. He was also known for a few other minor children's classics, including Stop That Ball! (1951) and What Have I Got (1961).

As an editor, McClintock secured the publication of the first in a long series of children's books by an old Dartmouth classmate of his, Theodore Geisel -- better known as Dr. Seuss. The book was Mulberry Street (1938).

McClintock also wrote patriotic pulp novels during World War II under the pseudonyms of William Starret (the Nurse Blake series, 1942-44) and Gregory Duncan (the Fighters for Freedom series, 1944). He died in 1967.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Local Notes, #1

  • On the evening of August 2, Jeremy Messersmith, on something of an extended national tour, opened for The Donuts and Alyssa Jean and the Gypsy Blue Band at The Fire on Girard Street in Philadelphia. The gnome-like one-man AV club spent most of his set crawling around on stage pulling cables, kicking footpedals and pushing buttons, but the ultimate effect was presumably as intended by Messersmith -- small lyrical gestures and the voice of a bunny rabbit over a raft of electronica that single-handedly calls to mind the stuff of Matt Hales (Aqualung). The Donuts, meanwhile, were on fire at The Fire; lead singer J. Bearclaw apparently had a bad day at his day job, which led him to snarl his way through a Wallenda-tight set that included songs from The Donuts' latest CD (Jet Ear), concluding by throwing his guitar and storming off the stage without so much as a valedictory.

  • In Can-Am League play last night, the Atlantic City Surf faced Les Capitales de Quebec, and the stylish minor league girlfriend corps was out at Bernie Robbins Stadium in full force. Amid cries of "Sacre bleu!" and "Viva le frommage!" (I made up that second one), Les Capitales bested the struggling Surfites, 7-4. Despite six innings of shaky pitching by AC's Monte Mansfield, I did not have to come out of Section 216 and pitch the 7th inning myself.

  • Thanks to a service call by yours truly yesterday, Grandpere now enjoys all cable channels between 27 and 55 as well as audio. His on-screen menus, however, are still in Spanish. Score that one Grandpere, 2, his JVC remote, 1.

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Barry Bonds at Three Rivers Stadium, circa 1988

Could this lean young man be the same fellow who just broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record?

Other questions occur to me. Am I the same fellow I was when I snapped this shot? Is my head as small as it was back then? Am I still a good guy when I take an Extra Strength Excedrin? Am I funnier after I’ve had a couple of beers? Am I smarter after getting a good night’s sleep? Am I any skinnier after I skip a few meals? Am I absolutely certain that I am still comprised of the same molecular structure, still fundamentally defined by a string of pointed messages written long ago in trails of deoxyribonucleic acid, after I get off a five-hour plane flight, after emerging from a dip in the ocean, or after an episode of quiet soul-searching and insomnia at 4 in the morning?

I don’t know any of the answers to the questions people pose about Barry Bonds. I humbly admit, however, that I don’t know the precise answers to the questions I am posing about myself. I am merely guessing at this point.

I do know that I would not be capable of hitting a single home run in the majors -- straight, sober, on Excedrin, on beer, or otherwise.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Adventures of Jane Adams

In 1980, I was doing some research on the horror film actor Rondo Hatton and was going through the motions of figuring out whether any of his co-stars were still alive, so that I could interview them about their recollections of him. Not many of them were around, but I did manage to find Arthur Lubin (director of Rondo’s The Spider Woman Strikes Back, 1946, but better known as the director of a few Abbott and Costello films and some episodes of Mr. Ed), who was very kind but had little to say about Mr. Hatton.

Research projects tend to beget research projects. One of Hatton’s co-stars, a pretty, blue-eyed, auburn-haired actress named Jane Adams, was listed in David Ragan’s Who’s Who in Hollywood as a “lost player,” someone who had completely disappeared after her film career ended. Ragan was possibly among the more qualified people to have made that assessment, as Who’s Who in Hollywood was probably the definitive source, at the time, of information about the then-current activities and residences of actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

To me, however, it was a challenge. I started by making an appointment to read files at the Margaret Herrick Library, the research archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Its biographical files contain photos, clippings, press releases and studio materials for thousands of film people – from bit players to stars to studio heads. Unfortunately, the Jane Adams files were pretty sparse. They contained a couple of stills of Adams from the film The Egg and I (which is a film that is not among Ms. Adams' official credits) and two versions of a Universal Studios official bio.

According to the bio, Jane Adams was born Betty Jane Bierce on this day in 1921 in San Antonio, Texas. She moved to California with her parents, and, it said, following testing at age 4, she was revealed to have the second highest I.Q. in California. She apparently later went on to become an accomplished violinist, a student at the Pasadena Playhouse and ultimately a model in New York City before going under contract with Universal Studios, appearing as "Poni Adams" in a number of routine horse operas. At last her name was changed "Jane Adams" -- with the idea that it might lead to more dignified roles. Instead she was cast memorably as the beautiful hunchbacked nurse in the Universal monster-fest, House of Dracula (1944; with John Carradine and Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the blind piano teacher in The Brute Man (1946, with the aforementioned Rondo Hatton).

After a brief hiatus during the late 1940s, Adams returned to do a few more Westerns, and appeared on some episodes of Kit Carson, The Cisco Kid and The Adventures of Superman on TV. She retired from the business in 1953. The only clue to her later life was a single line from her studio bio that stated that she had “married Lt. Thomas K. Turnage, U.S. Army” in 1945. Before the Internet, of course, a clue such as this was little more than an invitation to hours of tedious phone book hunting. I spent a day at a local library picking through old phone books from across the country, looking for Turnages. It seemed like a dead end, and I put the file away.

The next part of the story is an illustration of the occasional serendipity of historical research, the awesome poltergeistian power of coincidence in the service of solving minor mysteries.

A few months after my phone book binge, I was sitting in the kitchen of my parents’ house in Southern California, with my Hatton files spread out in front of me on the breakfast table. Across from me was a little black and white TV set, and on it was the 11 o’clock news, to which I had tuned in anticipation of Johnny Carson’s monologue at 11:30. I ran across the Jane Adams subfile and opened it. There again I saw the line about Miss Adams’ marriage to Lt. Turnage. Then, as if the clouds in my kitchen had parted and let loose a bolt of white sunlight, the news anchor on the TV led into a taped clip by saying, “President Reagan’s executive assistant on military manpower, General Thomas K. Turnage, explained that …” I looked up to see General Turnage talking to reporters about some pressing issue concerning military conscription and the U.S. Selective Service.

My parents wondered what the commotion in the kitchen was all about. The next morning, I started to do some newspaper research on General Turnage, and by the end of the day, I had found an entry on him in a Who’s Who publication that listed his wife’s name as “Betty Jane Smith,” and an address (200 N. Pickett Street, Alexandria, Virginia). A phone number was only a step away.

I was 17 years old. I was eligible for Selective Service registration the next year. I was dealing with the wife of an advisor to the president. So, naturally, I chickened out. I never made any effort to contact the former Jane Adams.

I did, however, dutifully return to the Margaret Herrick Library with a neatly penned anonymous message on an index card, which read more or less as follows:

Jane Adams is married to General Thomas Turnage, President Reagan’s executive assistant for military manpower. Her address is 200 N. Pickett Street, Alexandria, Virginia.

I placed the card in the Jane Adams file in the Library, and then forgot about the whole thing.

Years later, while in a book shop in Southern California, I found a quickie reference work on B horror movies or westerns in which the author had tracked down Jane Adams, now retired with General Turnage in Rancho Mirage, California, and interviewed her. I like to assume that my anonymous message helped. In her interview, Ms. Adams recalls:

On July 14, 1945, I married Tom Turnage. We recently celebrated our golden wedding anniversary. [A brief marriage to an Annapolis cadet ended tragically as he was killed in action on his first mission during WWII.] I wanted to be with Tom, whose career kept us traveling constantly. It was only when he was sent to Korea that I came back and did those TV shows. I wanted to be a housewife, mother and travel. That’s something I couldn’t do as an actress … I’m very happy in Palm Springs … I loved working in serials and westerns – it was very exciting. My life has been a great adventure.
I felt a pang of regret that I never contacted her.

General Turnage passed away in 2000, and was given a burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Under President Reagan, he was not only an executive on the President’s military manpower task force, but he served as the director of the Selective Service, and finally as the last administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration, from 1986 to 1989 – prior to the job’s elevation to a cabinet-level post as the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Walking Home from School. Kathmandu, Nepal, 1997

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Man Who Almost Made It

Mountaineer Eric Shipton, the man who almost made it, was born on this day in 1907 in Ceylon.

Eric Shipton was one of the world's most respected climbers in the two decades before Mt. Everest was finally conquered by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953, and was scheduled to lead the 1953 expedition himself. Shipton, however, was more interested in climbing than in summiting, and was perhaps a victim of British ambitions regarding Everest.

The son of a colonial tea planter who died when Shipton was 3, Shipton grew up with dyslexia and without any discernible prospects. After ambling around the Alps during his 20s, he went to work on a coffee plantation in Kenya, where he made his mark as an amateur mountaineer on some previously unclimbed mountains in East Africa.

A scant 7 years after the disappearance of George Mallory on Everest, Shipton was in the Himalayas. In 1931 he summited Kamet (25,263 ft.), and participated in or led small mapping and reconnaissance expeditions (the kind of climbing he enjoyed most) on the Tibetan side of Everest in 1933, 1935, 1936 and 1938 - bagging 26 20,000-ft. peaks during the 1935 expedition alone, and establishing a camp at 27,200 ft. on Everest in 1938. In 1938 he received the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, but he was still dirt-poor, and with World War II beginning, Everest seemed out of the question for awhile; so highly-placed friends saw to it that Shipton would be appointed as consul-general in some of the greater Indian territories where he could continue map-climbing in uncharted areas. Chinese border hostilities limited his efforts, however, and in 1951 he was expelled from Yunnan.

Later that year, however, he led another reconnaissance mission on Everest, this time from the Nepal side. The British offered Shipton the chance to lead the 1953 group which eventually got to the top of Everest, but they made it clear to Shipton that his casual style of exploration was not at all what was expected, and basically forced him to resign from the job, leaving John Hunt in charge.

Afterwards, Shipton's reputation was never quite the same. He never made it to the top of Everest, although during the 1960s he made important reconnaissance missions in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and armed with his knowledge of the terrain was an adviser to Chile in their border dispute with Argentina. Shipton died on March 28, 1977 in Anstey, Wiltshsire.

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