Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Jerry Nelson

July 16, 2017

Last week I had the sad pleasure of participating in Nelsonfest, a symposium celebrating the many achievements of Jerry Nelson in observational astronomy, especially the Ten-Meter Telescopes at the Keck Observatory, to which I made a small contribution (well, actually two).

It was a pleasure because it was gratifying to meet many people for whom, as for me, working with Jerry was a stimulating, edifying and enjoyable experience. It was sad because Jerry had died about a month earlier, and so what had been meant as a series of technical presentations became mingled with reminiscences.

Jerry was one of those fortunate few who conceived a radical idea and then were able to carry it to full fruition, overcoming intellectual opposition, financial uncertainty and technical challenges. He did so by convincing people with the sheer force of his ideas. There was no ego at play.

Unlike many famous technological innovators who advance their plans by force of personality, depending on their subordinates for most of the details but taking credit for their work (the likes of Gustave Eiffel, David Sarnoff or Steve Jobs), the ideas for the Ten-Meter Telescope were Jerry’s, but he was, if anything, overly generous in giving credit to his collaborators, starting with the key notion of the segmented mirror produced by means of stressed-mirror polishing, for which I derived the formal theory. (It may not be generally known that the Eiffel Tower was not designed by Eiffel but by two engineers and an architect working for his company, whose patent rights he bought out.)

Jerry was sui generis, and his like may not be found again, especially in this age of pygmies masquerading as tech giants.


Traveling with Google, again

May 7, 2017

I spent the month of April traveling in Europe with my wife, as usual with the help of Google Maps. I was pleased to discover that GM now locates Prague in Czechia, something that I have long been advocating as the informal name of the country officially called the Czech Republic, the same as Slovakia instead of Slovak Republic, France instead of French Republic, and so on. I was also pleased to find out that, unlike two years ago, GM now knows that the RER B line in Paris runs not only south but also north, and is the direct way to get from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle Airport. GM doesn’t seem to know the buses in Paris yet, but give it time. Everywhere else, it has them down, and the vaporetti in Venice as well.

When it comes to giving time estimates, though, GM is hampered by its seemingly two-dimensional vision of the world. That is, it disregards the fact that in navigating through multimodal stations (or even entering or leaving simple ones) one often has to move vertically by several levels on stairs, escalators and elevators, all of which take time which GM does not calculate.  The same applies, in GM’s  time estimates for walking, to waiting at stoplights. I have usually found driving times, on the other hand, to be surprisingly accurate.

But my main topic is the spoken turn-by-turn navigation that I have been increasingly relying on for driving and walking in unfamiliar locations. I call the disembodies female voice GPSy (pronounced like gypsy) or Mapsy.

In using GPSy locally in the Bay Area, my wife and I have sometimes at chuckled at some of her quirky pronunciations, such as, when referring to San Rafael, saying the second part as a three-syllable word (like the name Raphael) rather than the two-syllable version (/rəˈfɛl/) that is common here.

But, on a trip to Quebec last year, I discovered a lot more. The revelation came when a street in Quebec City called 1re rue (Première rue) was called “one-ree roo”.  It became obvious that Mapsy reads foreign names — by design, I am sure — as an American unfamiliar with the local language would read them.

I understand from Wikipedia that Mapsy’s voice is electronic. How it is generated — let alone how it’s programmed to read place-names, especially foreign ones — is a mystery to me Maybe Mark Liberman knows.

But I intend to use Mapsy’s pronunciation to explore more ramifications of what I have called the “misrule” of stress. In my next post, probably.