Category: Odds and Ends

Primer #56

In general the ground rule for this blog is that I only write about items I bought used.  They don’t necessarily have to come from a thrift store, just that I did not buy them new.  I’m going to bend that rule a bit on this occasion because another aspect of this blog is that basically all of these items are frivolous.  That is to say I enjoy finding them because I like looking at them and learning about them but they are basically useless.

I’m a big fan of Brady Haran’s YouTube empire of science and technology channels: Periodic Videos, Numberphile, Sixty Signals, Deep Sky, and Computerphile.  On a Sunday last September I got up at a leisurely time and happened to check Numberphile.  He had just published this video about an enigmatic tabletop device that mechanically displayed prime numbers.  I was transfixed.

It turned out that this thing was called a Primer, an electronic kinetic sculpture by the LA artist Karl Lautman who was selling them to the public through a Kickstarter.  There is a big red button and when you push the button the counter clicks off to the next prime number.  It only displays prime numbers.  That’s all it does.

At first, this seems rather pointless, and that’s part of the fun.

However, the Numberphile video brought up an excellent point.  The loud clicking noise the Primer’s mechanical display makes when it’s incremented gives you an audio cue to gaps between primes.  Most discussions of mathematics look like Greek to me but from what I’ve gathered from Numberphile and other descriptions of mathematical topics for the layman is that there’s no formula that will spit out a list of all of the prime numbers (though, there are formulas that spit out some of them).  As a result, there’s quite a bit of mathematics devoted to the distribution of prime numbers.  We can know about how many primes there are less than a given number, but not exactly what they are without checking each number.

It’s possible to visualize the distribution of prime numbers but the Primer gives you a way to hear it by listening to how many counter clicks you get per button press.  Sometimes it goes just a few clicks.  Sometimes it goes just two clicks and you’ve heard a twin prime.  Other times it seems to go on-and-on before hitting the next prime.

As a result, the idea of owning a desktop art installation that spits out prime numbers was just astonishingly cool.  There were two big catches: First, a Primer cost $120.  I think for say, $50, it would have been an instant buy for me but $120 required much more thought.

Second, there were only going to be 60 Primers made through this Kickstarter and on that Sunday last September nearly all of them had already sold.  I think when I saw the Numberphile video there were less than six left…And Numberphile is followed by hundreds of thousands of people who at that very moment were probably having the same series of thoughts I was.

Knowing that potentially the last remaining Primers in the Kickstarter could be taken at any moment I decided to take a shower and mull it over.

What I decided was:

1) I want to own geeky toys, but not obvious ones.  In principle that’s the whole point of this blog.  A toy that combines the mysterious mathematical aura of prime numbers with a mischievous Red Button is the epitome of geek toys.  At the same time it’s not a Doctor Who action figure, or a pewter Enterprise, or something else obvious.

2) I like the idea of owning a piece of art.  I think until very recently I didn’t understand art.  I thought of art in terms of something you look at and move on to the next thing.  I think this changed a few years ago when I was looking at a quarter and realized that I really liked the way this looked.  I was deriving pleasure from the aesthetics of the thing.  Art is about making you feel something by looking at an object.  The quarter is supposed to make you feel authority and confidence.  Something like the Primer exudes mystery and playfulness.

3) While spending $120 on something like this is clearly frivolous, so is basically everything I collect.  I bought a copy of Windows/386 just to look at it…How is this any different?  In fact, this is better because it has a button.

So, I became a backer for $120 and bought a Primer.

Karl, the artist, posted a number of very cool videos about how he was putting together the Primers.  He explained that while he’s done a lot of this type of sculpture he was not very experienced with building 60 of them at once.  Even before the Kickstarter had ended he showed how he cut and painted each of the bases.  The most interesting part for me was how he showed that the aluminum bodies of the Primers were actually cut sections of long tubes.

On December 3rd, my Primer came in the mail.


I eagerly unpacked it and set it up on top of the upturned cardboard box that in came in.

And I set about clicking.

The best thing about the Primer is that sound.  Every time I hear it the sound and see the action of the numbers changing it reminds me of the CRM-114 from Dr. Strangelove and I get a big smile on my face.

The letter that comes with the Primer explains that the little Amtel microcontroller inside does not know what the value of the display is.  Instead, it has a list of how many times it needs to click the counter forward to reach each prime number.

The bottom of the Primer is where mine is numbered with #56 and signed by the artist.  There’s also a label where people who wanted to contribute to the Kickstarter but did not want to buy a Primer could get a silly message:

The counter itself is an Eaton “mechanical totalizer“.  The artist says that he finds them in batches on eBay.  You can tell the counter’s condition that it came from another life somewhere.

In case you’re wondering.  After this Primer gets to the last prime number before 999999 the next button press will reset the counter to 000002, since 2 is the first prime number.

The power plugs into the back.  I assume those are the screws that hold the counter to the aluminum body.

I love the Primer’s color scheme: Smooth aluminum with black plastic and that seductive red button.  It reminds me of HAL 9000.  It also reminds me of the shape of a water faucet.  It’s like a faucet for prime numbers.  Drip…drip…drip…

If this sort of thing excites you, you can buy a new Primer of a slightly modified design from the artist for $160 (which gives me some smug satisfaction for buying early at $120).



Cuyahoga Falls Friends of the Library Spring 2014 Book Sale Haul

The Cuyahoga Falls Friends of the Library Sale was this past Friday and Saturday and like last year I made sure I stopped by.

It’s funny, when I got home for some reason I was a bit disappointed.  Unlike previous years I didn’t bag a ton of science fiction story collections and I didn’t find a really singular, amazing book like The Codebreakers, or one of Asimov’s Opus books, or the Robotech novel set I’ve found in previous years.

However, tonight I was unpacking the books I bought and I realized I was totally wrong: This was a fantastic haul!

What you see here cost me a total of $11.20.  $5.20 for the books and $6 for the DVDs.  I think two of these books might have also come from a trip to Goodwill later that day, but I can’t remember for sure which ones.  I think it was two of the hardbacks.

At the book sale the science section is close to the entrance so the first thing I found was Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a classic book about the development of science that I’ve heard a lot about but never actually read.

From there I cruised to the science fiction section and spotted a some good Asimov stuff.  When I was there, near the end of the second day there was what I think was an entire set of the Foundation series (the books from the 50s and the books we wrote later).  I’ve recently gotten into finding older versions of books I already own so I picked up the first three books.  The two Asimov short story collections are two that I don’t think I’ve seen before.

Nearby was the graphic novel/comics section, which by that part of the day was almost empty.  However, I found the Doonesbury Twenty-Five Years collection which will go nicely next to my Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes collections.  I’m not a great fan of Doonesbury today but looking through the collection it had a great biting vitality in the 70s and 80s.

The room at Cuyahoga Falls Library where the sale is held is very cramped on sale day.  The low ceiling, poor lighting, narrow aisles, and close quarters have in previous years made me want to leave as soon as I looked over the SF section.  This year though, we came at about 2:00PM which is before the mad dash for the bag sale begins and the crowds were somewhat more manageable.  This left me free to look over other sections at my leisure so I spent some serious time at the Art section, which is where I found A History of Graphic Design, American Architecture 1860-1976, and Seven Days in the Art World.  I’m most excited about A History of Graphic Design which is apparently an authoritative overview of graphic design.  Graphic design is one of those subjects I don’t know much about, but it appeals to me on aesthetic grounds.  That book is just fantastic to look at.

The real treat though, was in the room where they sell more “expensive” (i.e. greater or equal to $1) items where I found almost all of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister which as a classic piece of 1980s British TV comedy, is dear to my heart.  Disc one of Yes, Minister is missing but I’m still immensely pleased.  It was astonishing to find such great British TV sitting there for $1 per disc.

The appeal of the Library Sale is the possibility that you can pick up things for cheap that ordinarily would be very expensive.  The graphic design book and the Yes, Minister sets certainly fulfilled that promise for me.

I think this was my fourth or fifth Friends of the Library Sale and this go-round has convinced me even more that the people who contribute books have fantastic taste.  The sale is a jewel and I’m looking forward to the Fall sale in November.

Odds and Ends #2

I mentioned last week how much I loved going to the library as a child.  These days rather than going to the library I tend to buy used books from thrift stores and used book stores.

I used to look at thrift store book sections with disdain because they were mostly filled with romance novels, out-of-date political books, self-help guides from the 70s, and other forms of useless drivel.

But, what I came to realize is that there’s always a diamond in the rough and considering how much rough thrift stores tend to have, the rate of finding diamonds is pretty high.  The beauty of it is that because these books tend to be so cheap you can really indulge your curiosity without feeling like you’re throwing away money.

Sometimes I’ll buy a book because I know nothing about the subject matter.

Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch

I was at the Goodwill on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls recently when I found this 1989 coffee table book about Ekiben, the Japanese tradition of creating special Bento box lunches for sale at train stations so that people can eat them on the trains.







I can’t imagine a similar book about American airline food, can you?

Other times I will buy a book because I am very familiar with the subject matter or I’m collecting books on a specific subject.  Ever since my parents bought me the Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft as a child I’ve been interested in collecting books about spaceflight, including books by or about astronauts.

We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race

I think I found this copy of We Have Capture, the autobiography of astronaut Tom Stafford (co-written with space writer Michael Cassutt) at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron.


Among the Apollo astronauts Tom Stafford is somewhat forgotten because he didn’t walk on the Moon and until I read We Have Capture I didn’t realize how much of an impact Stafford had made. After flying on Gemini 6 and Gemini 9 , Stafford commanded the Apollo 10 mission, which was a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. He and Gene Cernan descended in the Lunar Module to about 47,000 feet above the Moon’s surface before testing the Lunar Module’s ability to abort during landing.

However, the most interesting part of Stafford’s career came after the Moon landings.  In 1971 was sent as a US representative to the funeral for the cosmonauts who died on the Soyuz 11 flight.  Later he would command the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the flight that is depicted in the jacket image.  ASTP is somewhat forgotten today but in a historic moment of the Cold War in 1975 the final US Apollo flight docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in order to demonstrate international cooperation.  What’s fascinating is that in the 25 years after ASTP Stafford continued to act as an adviser for NASA and helped to shepherd the Shuttle-Mir flights and the transformation of the failed Space Station Freedom project into the joint US-Russian-European-Japanese International Space Station project.  In many ways the most interesting parts of the book have to do with Stafford’s techno-bureaucrat functions on that ground more than what he did in space.

Incidentally, I hope someday a space writer like Michael Cassutt, Andrew Chaikin or Dwayne Day writes a book-length history of the origins of the International Space Station (ISS).  From what I understand there were some unique political, diplomatic, and engineering challenges that were overcome to create the ISS.

The best writer to tell that story may be William Burrows, author of books including Deep Black and Exploring Space.

Exploring Space: Voyages in the Solar System and Beyond

I found this copy of Exploring Space at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron.  This is a funny book because to look at the cover this looks like your standard “spaceflight is so great” kind of hagiography that’s common among books about spaceflight.  In Exploring Space from 1990, Burrows actually takes a more critical approach.


I don’t think Burrows dislikes us spending money on exploring space.  Rather, he’s unhappy, perhaps even disgusted with the way we’ve gone about doing it.  The history of spaceflight is rife with good ideas that were poorly executed repeatedly before the engineers got them right (JPL’s early flights in the Pioneer, Mariner, Ranger, and Surveyor series) , good ideas that we spent way too much money on before they were finally executed right (Viking and Voyager) and questionable ideas that were forced to be realized because of political pressure (like the Space Shuttle).  The bizarre way that we fund spaceflight through political kabuki lends itself to these kinds of costly messes.  I suspect that if Burrows were writing Exploring Space today he would be more sympathetic to NASA’s cost controlled Discovery program, very unhappy with the James Webb Space Telescope, and seething with rage about the forthcoming SLS launch vehicle.

An interesting example of when spaceflight vision and reality collide is well illustrated by…

Challenge of the Stars: A Forecast of the Future Exploration of the Universe

This thin coffee-table sized volume is another book I found at the Waterloo Road Goodwill.  I remember that I spotted it right after one of the book’s authors, the English astronomer and television presenter Patrick Moore, had died late last year.


Much like The Compact Disc Book, I mentioned last week, the fun of Challenge of the Stars is seeing if what they predicted would occur that has occurred and what has not occurred.  One thing they got right was the “Grand Tour” of the solar system that became the Voyager 1 and 2 probes.


This stunning illustration of a proposed docking between a Soviet Soyuz and the US’s Skylab space station (note the Apollo CSM waiting in the distance).  This idea was turned down in favor of the Apollo-Soyuz Test project flight that Tom Stafford flew.

What really caught my eye though, was the section on space stations and a manned Mars landing.


On the bottom left is one of the earlier proposals for the Space Shuttle.  Rather than the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters we bacame so fami,iar with, this earlier proposal used a liquid-fueled booster that would fly back to the launch site and land rather than being discarded like the External Tank.

The real prize though, is the photo on the opposite page.  Here’s a closer view.


Other than the fact that this is a beautiful piece of art, there’s quite a bit of political history attached to this image.  This was produced for a study that Von Braun’s group at Marshall Spaceflight Center conducted in 1969 about what to do after Apollo.

That blunt-nosed craft in the middle of the image with the three cylinders with the USA insignia on them are Von Braun’s idea for a manned-Mars exploration ship.  The three USA-labeled cylinders are actually nuclear powered rockets.  Here a space shuttle is delivering a fuel shipment to the craft while it’s being assembled in orbit nearby a space station.  What you’re seeing envisioned here would have taken dozens of Saturn V launches to get into orbit.

On a later page is an illustration of what the Mars Excursion Module, Von Braun’s Mars lander, would have looked like sitting on Mars.  Note that it’s basically a giant-sized Apollo command module.


The excellent False Steps blog goes into more detail but essentially this outrageously expensive proposal was laughed out of the room in Washington.  One of the reasons we got the Space Shuttle after Apollo was that the Space Shuttle was seen as more cost effective than Apollo, and into this atmosphere NASA’s spacecraft designers at Marshall were tilting at windmills rather than proposing a more cost-effective alternative to the Shuttle.

It’s fascinating to imagine what might have been though, had Von Braun’s Mars mission proposal been accepted by Nixon.  In fact…


Voyage, by Stephen Baxter is a science fiction novel that explores an alternate history where a version of Von Braun’s proposal was actually carried out and the United States landed on Mars in 1986.


I believe I found this paperback at Last Exit Books in Kent.

Voyage is a real treat for spaceflight fans because it goes into immense detail about the trials and tribulations of the political squabbling, engineering feats, test flight mishaps, and other nerd candy that lead up to the Mars landing.  Clearly Baxter studied the various Mars mission proposals from the late-1960s and early 1970s carefully because many of the details from Von Braun’s plan, like upgrade versions of the Saturn V and the NERVA nuclear rocket project make their way into Voyage.  He also takes cues from real life as well.  For example, rather than the Challenger disaster, a gruesome mishap occurs with on a NERVA rocket test flight.  Rather than the ASTP mission flying, the Soviets are invited to a US Skylab-style station orbiting the Moon.  If you’re a space nerd at all, Voyage is going to be right up your alley.

Sometimes I stumble onto neat space memorabilia in unexpected places.

Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD

I was at the Kent/Ravenna Goodwill a few weeks ago browsing at the DVDs and suddenly I see a DVD that says Atlas V AV-003 on the side.


I expect to see Atlas V rocket serial numbers the on the forums, not on something at Goodwill.

The Atlas V is a launch vehicle originally developed by Lockheed Martin and currently built and operated by the United Launch Alliance.  You might remember the original Atlas rocket that began as an ICBM in the 1950s, flew astronauts during the Mercury program in the early 1960s, and became a workhorse for launching satellites and space probes well into the 1990s.  Since then, the Atlas name has become a sort of brand name for the Atlas rocket family.  The current Atlas V has design heritage that goes back to the Titan and Atlas-Centaur rockets and uses a first stage booster engine built by the Russians.


This is the Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD.  AV-003 refers to the serial number of the rocket, so this DVD documents the launch of the third Atlas V in 2003.

At first I was a bit disappointed in this DVD because it seemed to be full of standard marketing video drivel and over-produced launch video crud.  That is until I found the menu where they let you watch every camera that was covering the launch.  There are the cameras you expect to see: cameras on the pad and tracking cameras that track the rocket from afar.


But then there are cameras mounted on the first and second stages.  I’ve seen these used on launch videos before, but I had never had the chance to just watch the raw footage with no commentary or editing.


Here is a view on the first stage looking downward as one of the solid rocket boosters separates.


And there it goes tumbling away.


This camera is looking upward as the payload fairing (aka the nose cone) separates after the rocket has gotten far enough out of the atmosphere that it can shed the weight of the fairing.


This is from the same camera looking upwards after the first stage has shut down and the second stage, a Centaur upper-stage, has started and speeds away from the dead booster.

I have no idea how a DVD like this made it’s way to the Kent Goodwill, but it made my day when I found it.


Odds and Ends #1

After the massive post on Windows/386 last week I promised a return to regular service the following week.  Unfortunately I caught a stomach bug this week and by the time I recovered I didn’t have time to come up with a full post.  So instead, here’s a post of “odds and ends”, neat things that might not make it into a full length post.

After last week’s post Twitter user (and all around fascinating dude) @scottcarson1957 recommended that I read Fire in the Valley by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, about the early years of the personal computer from about 1975 to 1984 when the book was written.  I ordered a copy from AbeBooks and it arrived Saturday morning.  This copy looks like it came out of a public school library, which has a neat kind of charm.  I believe Fire in the Valley was the basis for the awesome TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, a movie I adore.


On Saturday I was delighted to feel well enough to go to the Friends of the Cuyahoga Falls Library book sale where in the past I’ve had really great luck finding cool sci-fi books for peanuts.  Isaac Asimov is always well represented.  The Friends of the Library organization has this large room in the basement of the Cuyahoga Falls Library where they collect books for sale and twice per year they let the public come in and buy them at very low prices.  This time we got there after 3PM, which is when they start doing their “fit as many books as you can into a bag for $3” sale. The selection was still very good for the sale being so close to the end.  As I made my way to the sci-fi section I passed the history and war sections and spotted a copy of The Codebreakers by David Kahn, published in 1967 (this copy is a Fourth Edition from 1968).


I remembered there was something special about this book and that for some reason it was difficult to get so I immediately grabbed it and put it into my bag.

When I got home and googled it I remembered…This book was discussed in Steven Levy’s Crypto as being one of the first public histories of cryptography.

When I read Crypto I thought “gee, I should own a copy of the The Codebreakers” but then I looked up the book…It’s not that it’s difficult to get it’s that for some reason it’s bloody expensive!  A new copy basically costs $45 whether you want the hardcover or the eBook.  A $45 eBook!  A used copy of the hardcover is still over $20!  I don’t care how important a book is, that’s highway robbery.

So, I’m very glad I picked up a copy of The Codebreakers as part of my $3 bag of books.

Also in my bag of books where these three Asimov books:


Pebble in the Sky is the first of the classic novels he wrote early in his career, but those two other books are collections of science fact writing he also did.  It’s oddly not that well known that Asimov was a terrifically prolific fact writer.  There was a series of collections of his science fact articles from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published under the Discus imprint by Avon Books in the 1970s and From Earth to Heaven and Of Time, Space, and Other Things are the seventh and eighth in the series I have found.

Another thing I bought at the Friends of the Library Sale was this copy of Caddyshack on CED:


CED, you may recall, was the Capacitance Electronic Disc System, RCA’s entry into the early-1980s home video format war that also brought us VHS, Beta, and LaserDisc.  Of the various losers of that war, CED was probably the most sad loser.

VHS, of course won.  Beta gave the world slightly better video quality and was still recordable.  LaserDisc was a very adaptable format that soldered on until the advent of DVD as the format with the highest quality analog video.  CED basically had no advantages.  It was not recordable but did not have better video quality as LaserDisc did.  It used a needle that had to physically touch the surface of the disc so over-time the video quality of a disc would degrade.

The discs are held in the bulky plastic caddy you see in the photo.  You would insert the caddy into the player and the player would sort of eat the disc while you removed the caddy.

At the moment I do not own a CED player.

The reason I bought this CED is that I sort of collect examples of forgotten video formats:


Here you see Caddyshack on CED, Blade Runner on LaserDisc, The Pink Panther on Video CD, Jumpin’ Jack Flash on Beta, Being John Malkovich on HD DVD, and Deep Impact on DIVX (full-frame DIVX for maximum awfulness).

The practical reason for owning these things is if I happen to find a player at a thrift store I want to already own a test article.  The silly reason is that I just think it’s hilarious.