Archive for the ‘The Internets’ category

Memorizing Pi

June 14, 2007

Nerds seem to be mesmerized by the idea of memorizing π to the maximum number of digits possible. Since π is irrational, and therefore infinite, this is inherently an exercise in futility. Nevertheless, thousands of nerds have applied themselves to the task. The current world record holder is Chao Lu of China, who in 2005 recited π to 67,890 decimal places. Presumably he then collapsed and wept.

But how many digits of π do you actually need to compute the numbers you need in your daily life? Did a hear a resounding “NONE!” there? Well, you might be surprised. For example, let’s say you’re an amoral real estate developer who has just greased enough palms to bulldoze a property full of low-income housing and put up fashionable high-priced condominiums. The area is one mile in radius, so you know you can build a boatload of condos. But how many, exactly, might that be? To know that number, you’d have to compute the area, and for that you need π. The formula for the area of a circle is A= π * r^2, the famous “pie are square” of the ancient hillbilly joke. If you take π as 0 digits of decimal accuracy, it becomes simply ‘3’, so the area is 3 square miles. But that answer is actually .14 sq. miles (almost 4 million square feet) less than the actual area. You can build a lot of condos on that amount of land. So clearly, our hypothetical contractor will want to know π to more digits than that. It turns out that π to 4 digits (3.1415) is just about close enough. It comes up only 2583 sq. ft. short of the actual area. Of course, you might be able to squeeze one more condo into that much space, so 5 digits is probably best; using 3.14159 leaves only 74 sq. ft., much too small a spot on which to place even the smallest condominium. But if he wanted to make sure he had it down to an accuracy of 1 sq. ft., he’d have to know π to 7 digits: 3.1415926.

But what if you’re an astronaut trying to hit Mars? Mars is, at its closest, 34.65 million miles from earth. Let’s say that you’ve got a hotshot cowboy astronaut (aren’t they all) piloting your spacecraft who can get you into Mars orbit if you come within one Martian diameter of where you’re supposed to be. Turns out that π to 4 digits is enough. But if you want to be within 3 ft. of your target, you’d need π to 11 digits: 3.14159265358.

So when do you need π to 10,000 digits in real life? Never, obviously. I know it to 15 digits and have never needed even close to that much accuracy. So go ahead and be satisfied with knowing that π=3.1416 (rounded, of course). I doubt you’ll ever need much more than that. But if you do, you always can look it up online. Here it is to 1 million digits.

BONUS: There is a theoretical maximum linear distance which is the circumference of the universe. There is also a shortest possible length, which is incredibly small, called the planck length. What are the maximum number of digits of π you would need to calculate the circumference of the universe(hint: its diameter is approximately 93 billion light years) to within plus or minus one planck length? Okay, begin…

ANSWER: Not that anyone asked, but the answer is 39 (sorry, not 42). But we’ve gone ahead and calculated it to one trillion places, just in case.


Models and Mainframes

June 11, 2007

Chick with DriveOr “Babes and Bits”. Whatever.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, IBM and other computer companies were fond of promoting their big ol’ computers in association with mini-skirted women (or ‘girls’, as they were called back then). Sex sells, right? For some reason, I now find these photos hilarious. Here are some I’ve found on the Interwebs:

The oldest I could find is this picture of two female technicians working with ENIAC during WWII.

This girl (and a guy) are working on an old IBM Type T04.

Here are two babes and a box at Lawrence Livermore Labs.

Here’s another at LLL, operating a UNIVAC. I think she’s got a kind of ‘Barbara Stanwick’ thing goin’ on there.

Whoa! These babes really know their way around inside the guts of a UNIVAC!

This chick uses a plunger to pull up the false floor in the computer room.

Here are two miniskirted techs on an IBM System 360 Model 67 computer as installed in Newcastle University in 1967.

This site has photos of lots of female (and male) computerists working at Bell Labs in the late 60’s.

And then there’s this blonde with black stockings who’s running a UNIVAC. Rowr!

IBM tape drive, circa 1955. And a blonde. But no mini-skirt. Not yet.

You’ve gotta love this redhead with her PDP-11! Yowsa!

This is a whole roomful of (mostly female) punchcard operators at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’m guessing late 60’s.

This gal is operating a giant digitizer for drafting illustrations, around 1963.

I just love this pic of the “Computer Secretary of the Future”.

This site hosts a half-dozen excellent photos of women with mainframes.

As does, of course, Jim Lileks in his wonderful online Compu-Promo display area.

Don’t be afraid to check ’em all out! What would you rather be doing? Working? (I thought not.)

Editorial Cartoonist Bob Patton

March 9, 2007


I love cartoons, comic strips, and comics. Of all these, the editorial cartoon is the only one that is considered ‘respectable’. There’s even a Pulitzer Prize awarded every year for ‘Best Editorial Cartoon‘.

My good friend Bob Patton hasn’t won his yet, but he’s an excellent political cartoonist for the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper. They’ve recently given Bob his own Blog so you can go check out his “Patton’s Pad” comics yourself:


July 14, 2006

EccentricOver on Merlin Mann’s blog 43 Folders, Merlin asked the world what our eccentricities are or were. This was a fun question. I posted my response (along with about 100 other people). I thought about things I’d done that I haven’t thought about in years. Turns out I really am weird. But that’s okay, because if the responses are any indicator, other people are, too. Gives me hope. Anyway, here’s my response:

“In the 4th grade, I had an imaginary friend, a leprechaun named ‘George’.

In junior high, before boxers were cool, I wore boxers. I quit when the football team shredded them underfoot in the locker room with their cleats.

The first year of high school, I got my hair cut like Mr. Spock. Yes, I was the only one.

Throughout high school, I walked the alleys of my city late at night, whistling improvised jazz riffs.

In college, I started smoking a pipe. This only lasted about one month.

Also in college, I would take my shirt off and walk around bare-chested outside when it was below zero. (This to impress girls, of course.)

When I worked in a factory, as the only ‘college boy’ there, I figured my piecework using a slide rule. I also played with a yo-yo while on downtime, earning the nickname ‘yo-yo’.

I wore an INFO pocket protector throughout most of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

For two years, I wore Ray-Bans and a black fedora and insisted on being called ‘Mr. Big’. (This was in Waterloo, when I hung with the girls in ‘Sister Moon’.)

Today, I always carry Altoids mints and obsessively save the tins, claiming how ‘useful’ they are. In actuality, I have a whole box full of the damn things sitting in my closet.

I make up strings of ‘facts’, making them more and more outrageous until I’m finally called on it, then act indignant. (Alas, Carol was my favorite victim, and she’s gone. Sorry, Sheryl, but you’re just not as gullible…)

I always insist on using my middle initial. Just a matter of practicality when you have a very common last name, really. (And I got really pissed when listed my middle name as ‘Robbin’ then wouldn’t fix it – my middle name is ‘Robert’, in honor of my Dad, and I’m proud of it.)

There are, of course, many, many more.”

Where the Hell is Matt?

June 30, 2006

MattEvery once in awhile, I see something on the Web that just makes me feel good, for no particular reason. See ‘Best Video Ever‘ on this blog for one example. Where the Hell is Matt? is another. It’s just a video of this geek who travels around the world and takes videos of himself dancing – badly – everywhere he goes. At first, when you watch it, you just think “Well, this is pretty stupid”, but then it starts to grow on you. And you begin to feel good. I don’t even know why. It’s just that this dork has been to so many places, and when he’s there, he just, you know, dances. Sometimes people join in. Sometimes they look at him funny. Sometimes the place he’s standing is just so impressive that you barely even notice the geek dancing. But the overall effect is, as they say, greater than the sum of its parts. Just click the link and watch the video. And see if, at the end of it all, you don’t somehow feel just a little bit better about being human.

Free Space on the Web

December 14, 2005

I wonder just how much free space somebody could glom onto if they really tried? I get a few megs with my Mediacom broadband account, and while that’s not exactly ‘free’, it is ‘included’ so I don’t pay extra for it. Better yet, I signed up for all of my extra email accounts there, and each comes with more free web space. WordPress is giving me this space for free, and I just signed up for a free account on Yahoo’s Geocities. I’m already challenged to fill what I’ve got, but I suppose I could start archiving stuff online. And I haven’t even tried out GMail yet. 🙂

Altoids USB Charger Kit

December 8, 2005

USB ChargerI just heard from Aaron Dunlap that he has shipped me my USB Charger Kit. This $7.50 kit will let me build a charger that works with my USB-powered Sony Clie, so I can play even more Solitaire and read even more eBooks while waiting in the doctor’s office. Anyway, the whole works will fit into an Altoids tin.

I love stuff that fits into Altoids tins. There’s my own Pocket Games Chest, of course, but others have created survival kits, a pinhole camera, and an iPod dock, among others. All of the listed projects are chronicled over on the MAKE magazine web site, but you can find lots more by Googling for Altoids project