fighting the lack of good ideas

steam by andrea sutcliffe

Andrea Sutcliffe’s book Steam: The Untold Story of American’s First Great Invention was a pure joy to read. Being the second review I’m writing with my “new” system, I hope you find this book as interesting as I have.

In 1784, James Rumsey designed a boat that could, by purely mechanical means, move its way upstream. What he devised was truly brilliant: imagine a catamaran or pontoon boat with a platform across the two hulls. Anchored to the platform is a waterwheel. The waterwheel dips into the river, and is connected via a linkage to poles that push the boat against the current like a Venetian Gondola.

Why did he develop such a device? Because at the time, shipping by barge etc was incredibly simple downstream – you load-up the barge, give it a small crew, and float downriver. But because there was no way of mechanically returning the vessel upstream (without using sail power, which can be fickle to use, and uses a lot of otherwise-usable cargo area). So barges and shipping vessels tended to be crudely made so they would only ever go downstream – at their destination they’d be turned into building materials. And the crews would have to return on foot. To put this in perspective, it took about 4 weeks to float a barge from Pittsburg down the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans. And it took about 6 months to get home.

Enter the need for reliable mechanical ship propulsion.

Beginning in his teens as a surveyor for the 6th Lord Fairfax, George Washington became enamored with the idea of inland navigation – that is, using streams, canals, rivers, and lakes to transport people and goods instead of the ocean. During his tenure as a surveyor, then an engineer, then a general, he never lost sight of what he viewed as the budding nation’s biggest hurdle to westward expansion – the overwhelmingly high cost of transporting goods from east to west, and vice versa. Along the coast, transport was simple and cheap. But to go far inland made prices exorbitantly high for both consumers and shippers – which made markets hard to tap.

The initial days of the steam wars are proof that ideas are worthless. Stationary steam engines, like those made by Boulton & Watt were too heavy and inefficient to possibly consider putting on a boat – at any scale. So while the idea of steam-powered travel had been running around folks’ minds for 20+ years by the time Rumsey built his simple mechanical boat, there was no way to practically use it.

What was needed were major improvements on steam engine design and implementation before wider applications for their power could be found. This is where the steamboat wars start to become exciting. Independently, Rumsey and a man named John Fitch (with his business partner) developed the pipe boiler which reduced the amount of water needed for operating an engine for the same power output, increased fuel efficiency, cut heating time, and lightened the engine itself. Traditional steam engines used a pot boiler – effectively a massive tank of water that would be heated in gestalt. As anyone who has ever timed how long it takes to start boiling water in a tea kettle vs a stock pot knows, water is very difficult to heat, and lots of energy is needed to move it even a couple degrees.

The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom none of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention. –Thomas Jefferson

Fascinatingly, Thomas Jefferson was against the idea of patents and copyright law, and likely would have campaigned heavily against it in the Constitutional process had he not been Minister to France. From a letter he wrote years after serving on the first Patent Commission Board:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature… Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising form them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society.

Contrast this to the efforts of both Fitch and Rumsey who lobbied for patent boards of some kind (at both the state and federal levels) between the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Unites States Constitution.

Sutcliffe’s account of the first “steamboat wars” shows that intellectual property litigation is an expensive, time-consuming, and distracting effort – whose end may or may not have any value.

Progress is an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. –George Orwell

Thornton’s condenser is undoubtedly one of the best calculated to condense without a jet of water, but I conceive the difficulty of getting rid of the air insurmountable .. when [the air] is drove back again by the steam to the cold condenser, it becomes nearly equal to common air in density, and skulks into the bottom of the condenser for security. –John Fitch (describing a new condenser design in 1790)

Based upon the extensive research Ms Sutcliffe has done into the early history and designs of steam engines and their associated mechanical conveyances, an old idea of mine has newly gained plausible validity: that of a steam-powered tank. Back in high school I postulated that both the power-to-weight and power-to-size ratio of steam engines had advanced sufficiently by the late 1850s that, in conjunction with a primitive form of caterpillar track design (which Fitch would have called an “endless chain of feet” (vs an early idea of his to use an “endless chain of paddles”)), that the first fully-mechanized war machines could have been built and sent into battle not in WWI, as the first tanks actually were, but instead during the Civil War – 50 years sooner. Leonardo Da Vinci has designed a human-powered armored car in the late 15th century. Replacing man power with steam power could have been a logical thing to have done – but no one ever did.

In the availability of men willing to persevere with a possibly “ridiculous” idea, America had an advantage. –Frank D Pager on the early successes of the Industrial Revolution in America.

Fitch and Rumsey took their war to the people in a series of “pamphlets” published over the course of many months. From Sutcliffe’s description of a “pamphlet” in this context, it seems they were the late 18th century version of a sourced blog or op-ed. Ranging from 20 to 50 (or more) pages in length, with affidavits, letters, and histories presented, the pamphlet was the common man’s research or position paper. I suppose they may have been used by others, too – but the context given in Steam shows them used as marketing and propaganda pieces.

He that studies and writes on the improvements of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations unborn, for it is impossible that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him. –Oliver Evans

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you. –Tony Benn (British Labour politician)

Seems that’s where Ghandi may have gotten the inspiration for this famous quotation:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Or perhaps it was Benn who was inspired by Ghandi. Or maybe they just realized the same thing independently.

programming your home by mike riley

Mike Riley’s entry in The Pragmatic Programmers series, Programming Your Home – automating with Arduino, Android, and your computer – was a lot of fun.

While I am not really in a position to do many of the mini projects given in the book (wrong type of house plus we rent), reading some of the project ideas did give me some inspiration for other activities. One of those is a Buffer-like tool I’m now writing to queue tweets over-and-above what the free level of Buffer will allow (and on a different schedule from my Buffer-fed queue). In conjunction with python-twitter, cron, and simple email messages, I’ve got a system started to which I can email things I would like to be posted, and they will go out when the cron job runs.

The Arduino is an impressive embedded platform – one that has also rekindled another long-time interest I’ve had in robotics. Years back, I recall seeing Sally Struthers advertising for one of those learn-at-home groups, and one of the options was robotics. (By “years back”, I mean 20+ years ago – probably more like 25 years ago, at this point.) I used to own a copy of Robot Builder’s Bonanza – and read it cover-to-cover a couple times. I loved watching Battlebots on TV. I’ve always wanted to buy/use LEGO Mindstorms.

Using robots to automate daily activities (and, of course, for fun) has been a fascination since I first saw Lost In Space and myriad other scifi shows and movies.

Riley does a great job of not demanding you be an expert programmer (or even a programmer at all) with the fully-implemented code examples in the book. He also does a good job of indicating what you’ll likely have to tweak on your own – and what you can probably just leave alone in the examples. Add to this the “extra credit challenges”, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in home automation, embedded development, robotics, or just general programming/scripting.

There are some other interesting Python snippets throughout the book – that don’t have to be used in the context of an Arduino (like using Google’s SMTP server (via authentication)).

to engineer is human by henry petroski

I’ve ogled To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski for several years. So when I saw it at a local used book store for just a couple dollars, I snagged a copy.

Along with some of his other works, such as The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, I’ve found the titles interesting, and the back covers alluring.

Sadly, while the book isn’t bad in and of itself, Petroski’s writing sounds like that of his profession – a professor. His style, while informative, carries the dryness associated with being in academia far too long.

Henry obviously knows a lot about engineering – but his delivery is too formal. Compared to works such as 1421 by Gavin Menzies (review), To Engineer is Human sounds like a graduate thesis. Maybe that was the author’s goal – if it was, he accomplished it.

If it was to make something normal folks would like and want to read, I think he failed miserably.

what is the “new” python?

9 years ago, Paul Graham made a controversial statement:

[W]hen you choose a language, you’re also choosing a community. The programmers you’ll be able to hire to work on a Java project won’t be as smart as the ones you could get to work on a project written in Python. And the quality of your hackers probably matters more than the language you choose. Though, frankly, the fact that good hackers prefer Python to Java should tell you something about the relative merits of those languages.

He had a follow-up the next month to expand a little on that thought:

[Y]ou could get smarter programmers to work on a Python project than you could to work on a Java project.

I didn’t mean by this that Java programmers are dumb. I meant that Python programmers are smart. It’s a lot of work to learn a new programming language. And people don’t learn Python because it will get them a job; they learn it because they genuinely like to program and aren’t satisfied with the languages they already know.

Which makes them exactly the kind of programmers companies should want to hire.

I wonder – what is the “new” Python? If Python was what the Cool Kidsâ„¢ were picking up for fun a decade ago, what is it today? R? Ruby? Or something that isn’t as well known? Ruby is two years newer than Python, but seems to have only become truly popular with the advent of Ruby-on-Rails. R may be too focused (it being designed for statistics programming), though it is also 20 years old now.

What new languages / techniques are there? Are there any? Haskell is  nearly a quarter century old. Erlang is nearly 30.

If you were a hiring manager, what would strike you as “motivated” or “must be smart” in terms of language(s) on resume?

assessment and capacity analysis and planning for virtualization initiatives


What would need to go into an assessment tool for a virtualization initiative?


Typical factors may include:

  • current CPU load per server
  • what’s running on each server
  • current hardware of each server
  • expected percentage increase in usage
  • OS usage – homogenous or heterogeneous
  • new hardware or re-use current hardware
  • storage needs
  • vendor for virtualization (VMware, Microsoft, Xen)

And don’t forget the all-important:


My experience is all related around VMware, but what I’ve seen and used in the past is the following:

  • look at all CPU utilizations currently
  • add those average and peak percentages in two separate columns
  • plan for ~10% overhead from your hypervisor of choice
  • for every 40% of ‘average’ or 80% of ‘peak’, use one server of the type you now consider “high-end” (ie, if you have a total of 687% of ‘peak’, you need 9 physical servers running your hypervisor of choice)

Other thoughts:

  • I like to plan for 1 full spare physical server per ~6, so that I can utilize Vmware’s Vmotion for migrating servers around
  • plan for buying/utilizing SAN storage of some form so your VMs can be moved to different physical servers easily

I originally answered this topic ~2 years ago on

chimneys and fireplaces

About 14 years ago, good friends of the family bought an old farm house with some outbuildings in rural Schoharie County in NY (outside Middleburgh, in a locale called “Hunter’s Land”).

One of the first things they wanted to do with the house was to re-engineer the heating, which included properly insulating the house, and then adding a back-to-back fireplace and stove nook in the living room, backed to the kitchen (the nook was designed to look like it had once been a fireplace). Jeff holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering, and works full-time with fluid dynamics for a government contractor. So when he deep-dove into fireplace fundamentals, fluid flow mechanics, and heat transfer, all of us who knew him well knew he’d come out with the best available design for heating his new home.

The design Jeff eventually settled on was a modernized Rumford fireplace (Count Rumford was quite the experimenter). One of the major differences between a Rumford design and that of a “traditional” fireplace is the smoke chamber is reversed – ie, the slope goes from front-to-back, and not back-to-front (see diagram, provided by McNear).

fireplace diagrams

comparison diagram of Rumford and traditional fireplaces

The primary advantages to this reversal are: reduced/eliminated smoke discharge into the room (especially at low-flow heating circumstances), and simplified construction (no corbeling of the back wall). Other improvements in the design are broader radiatory angles for heat dispersion, and reduced fuel consumption.

Fortunately for Jeff and his wife, his brother-in-law was a mason, so costs could be reduced for installing the chimney and fireplaces to just that of labor and materials: still an expense, but lower than hiring it done outside the family.

Also fortunately for them, they had a ready supply of friends to help tear-out the non-load-bearing wall separating the kitchen and living room, cut a hole in the floor, pour a foundation for the structure, and build-out the subhearth.

During that period, I was going weekly to their house where Jeff and I would spend most of the evening geeking-out: I was in high school, and Jeff was teaching me how to program in C++ (well, ok: he taught me how to program in C using C++ keywords, and then I taught him object-orientation). His day job involved utilizing both commercial and in-house finite element analysis tools (utilizing a [then relatively] new equation solver: GMRES), and he used the time with me to try-out ideas he might want to incorporate at work – just in a new/easier-to-use language than that which he employed from 9-5 (his work centered around Fortran). (As a sidebar, we both learned an enormous amount during those days – good times [even ultimately leading to the Story of Mr G {the second version of the story}]). Back to the story.

Installing the fireplace was a fairly straight-forward process: once the wall and floor were down and cut (and the support beams for the house re-supported on the fringe of the subhearth and the middles cut out, the fireplace was laid-up “normally”. Thanks to pre-cast pieces from Superior Clay, installing the throat and smoke chamber was a cinch. Bringing the flue and chimney up through the roof was likewise a pretty quick process (the portion of the house the chimney went did not have a second storey), culminating in the first celebratory fire about a year after the whole process started (Jeff worked on it part-time during evenings and weekends, getting help as he could).

During that time, I learned a buttload about masonry, the densities of limestone and cast iron (the mantle and stove), re-engineering existing homes, temperature profiles of a fire, and fluid dynamics in action. Due my current occupation at the time, I had access to a host of thermocouple devices, some of which I checked-out and brought to Jeff’s house to profile the fireplace for where it was hottest, so that fires could be built (and a reflector plate installed) in the most efficient manner.

After a few years in Hunter’s Land, Jeff & co moved to a new domicile closer to his work (cutting his ~60 minutes each way commute by 80%). They again decided to add a Rumford fireplace to their home, but hired the entire project out for time purposes.

Since that time, I have been a proponent of fireplace heating, and of some level of self-reliance on fuel (and food) supplies (when possible).

Who knew a year-long hobby project would end up having such a long-term effect?

Given the chance, I’d LOVE to implement such a fireplace in my own home when we finally buy one.